Blogger Ethics And The Breitbart/Sherrod Story

There are some lessons for the blogosphere in this week's Andrew Breitbart dust-up.

Several conservative bloggers are up in the air this morning over comments made on CNN by anchors Kyra Phillips and John Roberts, I’ll let Newsbusters (a conservative media watchdog blog) tell the story:

Should there be a “gatekeeper” regulating internet bloggers? In the aftermath of the Shirley Sherrod incident, that’s what CNN promoted on July 23.

Anchors Kyra Phillips and John Roberts discussed the “mixed blessing of the internet,” and agreed that there should be a crackdown on anonymous bloggers who disparage others on the internet.

“There are so many great things that the internet does and has to offer, but at the same time, Kyra, as you know, there is this dark side,” Roberts said. “Imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t taken a look at what happened with Shirley Sherrod and plumbed the depths further and found out that what had been posted on the internet was not in fact reflective of what she said.”

But Phillips replied that the mainstream media “can’t always do that.”

“There’s going to have be a point in time where these people have to be held accountable,” Phillips said. “How about all these bloggers that blog anonymously? They say rotten things about people and they’re actually given credibility, which is crazy. They’re a bunch of cowards, they’re just people seeking attention.”

Phillips demanded to know what Andrew Keen thought needed to be done. Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture,” who suggested that there needs to be an internet “gatekeeper,” had been interviewed by Roberts and quoted in the segment.

“Well what Andrew talked about with me was this idea of a gatekeeper but there are huge first amendment rights that come into play here – freedom of speech and all that. And he said the people who need to be the gatekeepers are the media to check into these stories,” said Roberts.

Phillips wanted to go even further, asking if “there’s going to come a point where something’s going to have to be done legally” about anonymous bloggers.

“There has to be some point where there’s some accountability. And companies, especially in the media have to stop giving these anonymous bloggers credit,” she said.

Video:

Predictably, several conservative bloggers have taken this conversation as evidence that these CNN want the government to come in and police those dangerous bloggers. Now, while there is plenty in the Phillips-Roberts exchange to criticize, I think they make a few good points, and that this entire affair that started with Andrew Brietbart publishing an out-of-context video with a misleading interpretation of what was said raises issues that every political blogger should give some thought to.

First, there’s the issue of anonymous blogging. There’s nothing wrong with the idea in principle — after all, anonymous political advocacy, has a long history in England and the United States — but it becomes a problem if someone is hiding behind an pseudonym and using it to launch attacks against others, be they politicians or private parties like Shirley Sherrod. The opportunities for libel in such situations are quite obvious, and when Phillips talks about something having to be done “legally,” I think this is what she’s referring to; you shouldn’t be able to anonymously slander people without having to pay the legal consequences for it. Better yet, avoid the legal consequences altogether, and don’t say anything you wouldn’t be willing to sign your real name to.

More importantly, though, the idea of a gatekeeper is being mis-interpreted. There are, or at least there are supposed to be, plenty of gatekeepers in the traditional media in the form of editors, part of whose job is supposed to be to question whether what a reporter whether brings to them is really news, or whether it’s been researched thoroughly enough. A “gatekeeper” doesn’t have to be a government entity, as Rick Moran noted in his post on the Breitbart affair, it could be anyone:

Perhaps it’s not so much what Breitbart did but what he failed to do; explain the context of the video and give a reason why this edited snippet of tape about an incident that occurred 24 years ago is relevant to making his case. A more vigorous, less closed conservative media might have pushed those questions to the forefront, challenging their colleagues on the basis of fairness and transparency

There were some conservative bloggers — like Erick Erickson and Caleb Howe — who did this, but for a time it seemed like they were rather lonely voices in the wildnerness.

In other words, just because Andrew Brietbart publishes it (or just because it’s published here at OTB) doesn’t mean it should be accepted without question. In fact, nothing should be accepted without question.

Instead of merely repeating what everyone else says, bloggers need to do a better job of becoming gatekeepers, even when it comes to people on “their side.”

Of course, the media itself needs to be a better gatekeeper in this regard as well. On Monday and Tuesday, several media outlets played the Breitbart tape of Shirley Sherrod over and over again without really questioning whether it was appropriate to do so. Admittedly, whether the tape was accurate or not, the story became news the minute the USDA fired Sherrod on Monday afternoon, however the speed with which Shirley Sherrod’s reputation was dragged through the mud in just 48 hours should be of concern to the old and new media alike.

These are just two of the lessons that the new media world can learn from Andrew Breitbart’s irresponsibility, I’ll be watching to see if anything changes.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Media, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Mithras says:

    There is so much less here than meets the eye. CNN is focusing on bloggers in order to divert attention from themselves. That’s all.

    A blogger is just a person with a website. People say all sorts of irresponsible, malicious things, whether untrue or untrue or somewhere in between. Saying it on a website or saying it in a bar or saying it from a podium or a pulpit makes no difference. Breitbart might as well have sent the video to Fox News via pony express for all it matters. The only valid point is that they ran it either without checking it or knowing it to be misleading. (What’s worse?)

    it becomes a problem if someone is hiding behind an pseudonym and using it to launch attacks against others, be they politicians or private parties like Shirley Sherrod.

    Why do people keep saying this? When has anonymity even been the problem with any of the pseudoscandals that the media have hyped? Breitbart wasn’t anonymous. Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe weren’t anonymous. What’s this fixation with anonymity and pseudonymity? I suspect it’s just a reptilian brain response: When something says something you don’t like, your urge is to bash their head in with a rock, so it’s vital you know who it is who’s slagging you. Here in civilization, we have better processes to deal with untruths. You can either speak the truth in response and convince people of it, or if you’ve been defamed, legal discovery will uncover the identity of the person who has defamed you.

    Instead of merely repeating what everyone else says, bloggers need to do a better job of becoming gatekeepers, even when it comes to people on “their side.”

    This will happen just as soon as people – blog readers – stop uncritically accepting things as true when they confirm their pre-existing beliefs. That is, never.

  2. Mithras says:

    Gah, unclosed tag. Did that fix it?

  3. G.A.Phillips says:

    OMO, why is it so hard to believe Andrew Breitbart when he tells you why he did what he did?

    There is one reason why this story blowed up kaboom! Some one In the Obama administration fired her because of that clip.

    And if you you watch the whole speech you should know that she should be fired for missuses of her power.

    Man……

  4. wr says:

    GA — Because he’s a lying scumbag.

    Oh, and because he said he was doing it to prove she was a racist official in the Obama administration, then when that was proved to be yet another one of his lies he changed his story to claim he’d only wanted to show how racist the audience is.

    No one with a brain would believe a word he says.

    Next question.

  5. First, there’s the issue of anonymous blogging. There’s nothing wrong with the idea in principle — after all, anonymous political advocacy, has a long history in England and the United States — but it becomes a problem if someone is hiding behind an pseudonym and using it to launch attacks against others, be they politicians or private parties like Shirley Sherrod.

    Except there were no anonymous bloggers (or even named bloggers) involved in the Shirley Sherrod story. It was started by Andrew Breitbart, under his own name, and then spread by traditional media (especially cable news, and especially especially Fox News). This seems like an attempt by CNN to change the conversation to avoid dealing with its own failings in this matter.

  6. john personna says:

    Anonymous blogging is a hot button for some. They even dislike overtly anonymous more than the subtly so. “Bob” can be trusted, “Nony,” no.

  7. john personna says:

    BTW, as I’ve said, people blogging under their name, and building a brand under their name, should be aware that non-profit bloggers might not have the same motivations.

  8. Herb says:

    Ugh….John Roberts and Kyra Phillips. The blogger ethics panel would no doubt reveal that they’re a happily engaged couple.

    I like John Roberts –even though he does much to downplay his past as a VJ in Canada under the name JD Roberts– but Kyra Phillips annoys me. She does a decent job as an anchor, but every now and then CNN sends her someplace to do a report. Unfortunately, it’s almost always when objectivity is sacrificed for access.

    Indeed, it’s almost a rule: If you see Kyra Phillips in the field, she’s probably shadowing someone important…and reporting everything they say as gospel.

  9. steve says:

    I think that someone is going to have to sue Breitbart to get this to change. A guy who actually reported the ACORN couple to the police lost his job also, another edited report. It would make an interesting first amendment case. I think you could make the case that someone with an audience as large as Breitbart has, should take some responsibility to avoid slander by putting out edited tapes the way he has done. (Most in the conservative world still appear to not know that O’Keefe and Co. were not dressed in pimp and whore gear e.g.)

    Steve

  10. john says:

    I would argue that conservative blogs have been pretty good gatekeepers for the old established media. From Rathergate to Bush’s “horrible” response to Katrina…the n-word smear during the health care vote…the NAACP condemnation or the “racist” tea parties. It’s CNN, CBS, the NYT and MSNBC that really need watching.

  11. Loonesta says:

    Breitbart? More like Dim-Bart.

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***GA — Because he’s a lying scumbag.

    Oh, and because he said he was doing it to prove she was a racist official in the Obama administration, then when that was proved to be yet another one of his lies he changed his story to claim he’d only wanted to show how racist the audience is.

    No one with a brain would believe a word he says.

    Next question.***

    So then, since your so good at this, you must know that every single thing that Obama says is a lie?
    Every single thing right?

    LOL!!! it’s like 95% of the people on this site get their news and information from msnbc and Jon Stewart.

    Sad,very sad…….

    wr, why no mention of this?—->

    ***There is one reason why this story blowed up kaboom! Some one In the Obama administration fired her because of that clip.

    And if you watch the whole speech you should know that she should be fired for missuses of her power.

    Man……*******

  13. wr says:

    On the one hand, there is President Obama, a man I respect for his intellect and accomplishments.

    On the other hand, there’s some internet troll who assures me with no evidence or examples that everything he says is a lie.

    And apparently I’m stupid because I listen to Obama instead of someone I’ve never met, who hates everything that’s great about this country, and who screams about the terrible taxes he has to pay when he’s pulling down eight bucks an hour. Sorry, my friend, I have had years when I’ve paid multiples in taxes of what you’ve earned, and I’m not whining about my burden. It’s worth it to keep this country great. What a tragedy your patriotism extends only to expressing hatred for the majority of your fellow citizens and never reaches as far as your walled. Although if you really are making under 17,000, you’re not paying income taxes, and by your own reckoning you’re a leach.

  14. grampagravy says:

    Although it went bigger than most, the Sherrod story isn’t a one-time “oops” for Fox, CNN, or Dimbart. By now, anyone who gives these sources credibility is off their meds or just stupid. No big deal. An interesting solution would be to create a website that tracks verifiable falsehoods and scores MSM outlets and mainstream bloggers on truthfulness and good research. If the scoring was done with integrity, we’d be able to trust about half of what the high scorers had to say.

  15. Brummagem Joe says:

    I have a simpler solution Doug that might appeal to you as a lawyer (think of the billable hours it would generate). Align our libel laws with those of Britain. Although they are sometimes critcized they seem eminently reasonable to me and usually end up with justice being done (even if sometimes it’s a bit rough). In Britain you’re perfectly at liberty to publish slanders about people but there’s some legal peril involved. I’m sure Ms Sherrod would have cleaned Breitbart out in Britain. It works the other way too. Those who use the legal system to attack those who make valid criticism of their opinions usually end up getting burned. A notable case was David Irving who brought a libel suit against an American Jewish professor who had critiqued his holocaust denial. He lost and had legal costs that bankrupted him. So someone like Breitbart whose moral compass seems roughly similar to that of Irving would find his publishing slanders or gaming the legal system fraught with danger.

  16. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***On the one hand, there is President Obama, a man I respect for his intellect and accomplishments.***lol……

    ***On the other hand, there’s some internet troll who assures me with no evidence or examples that everything he says is a lie.***

    lol,Dude, am I a troll? sure:) Do I have evidence? haha, yes, I listen to Obama.

    ***And apparently I’m stupid because I listen to Obama instead of someone I’ve never met,***
    now if your doing to tell me that you personally know Obama and don’t believe he is a liar, lol….

    ***who hates everything that’s great about this country, and who screams about the terrible taxes he has to pay when he’s pulling down eight bucks an hour***

    Name something I hate that is great about this country?

    I scream about a hell of a lot then more taxes, witch is the least of my worries. and now your going to tell me I don’t have the right to because I can only get a crappy paying job witch I do love to work at the moment….LOL

    ***Sorry, my friend, I have had years when I’ve paid multiples in taxes of what you’ve earned, and I’m not whining about my burden***

    lol, who is whining? I am saying that I can’t live on what I earn because the government takes most of it in one tax or the other, and I should be able to.

    ***It’s worth it to keep this country great.***

    lol, dude you are so gullible and such a hypocrite, and you hate me for tyring to get you to see this in anyway I can, but it’s your choice and I will give you that, sad as it is.

    ***What a tragedy your patriotism extends only to expressing hatred for the majority of your fellow citizens and never reaches as far as your walled.***

    Hatred is an emotion that you live off of not me sucker, I love all of you fools despite the fact of you rsins.

    ***Although if you really are making under 17,000, you’re not paying income taxes, and by your own reckoning you’re a leach.***

    lol, dude, I have been paying income tax almost my whole working life, since I was 18, and im 45 now…lol, oh and here is a clue— there should not be and income tax LOOK IT UP, liberals!!!!

    Come out of that fog bro, please…

    Stop using RR tactics on me I don’t care and more or less I’ll get angry for you using them again and use them back on you, errrr…………..

    Do you even know that that’s all you do is use RR tactics? man I am going to end up crying over your plight.seriously…

    Note to the rest of you: I have got over your attacks on my spelling and grammar as an argument against my teachable moments……..lol…..

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    I note that the only person defending Breitbart on this thread is an imbecile. That’s never a good sign.

  18. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***I note that the only person defending Breitbart on this thread is an imbecile. That’s never a good sign.***:) once again if you RR me, as your weak a$$ comeback I will own you.

    So I’m an imbecile, because I understand the story, or because I don’t give two poops how I type my response, when I’m just talking to you guys? lol….

    I’m not really defending this dude as much as I’m pointing out how absolutely clueless MOST of you are when it comes to getting the facts.

    Or stopping yourselves from instantly defending your new god of the moment.

    But then I’m talking to atheists, lawyers, and liberal Marxists, what should I expect? More then spin, bullish$$, or indoctrinated propaganda, I think not!!!!

  19. wr says:

    I’m using RR tactics? Ronald Reagan tactics? What’s that — selling arms to America’s sworn enemeies so I can send illegal armies to overthrow democratically elected governments I don’t like?

    Oh, you might want to check your copy of the Constitution. Apparently yours is a little out of date. The income tax was added to it a long time ago.

    Or are you one of those teabagging “Constitutionalists” who wants to fight to the death to defend the document without having any clue what’s in it?

  20. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***I’m using RR tactics? Ronald Reagan tactics? What’s that — selling arms to America’s sworn enemies so I can send illegal armies to overthrow democratically elected governments I don’t like?*** unholy crap! that was pretty good:) but I was refering to Rules for Retards…….

    ***Oh, you might want to check your copy of the Constitution. Apparently yours is a little out of date. The income tax was added to it a long time ago.***lol

    http://www.thelawthatneverwas.com/new/davy2.asp

    ***Or are you one of those teabagging “Constitutionalists” who wants to fight to the death to defend the document without having any clue what’s in it?*** lol………and now for the cartoon.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJ69X1qt4sQ