Note: I’m giving this post from yesterday a bump for two reasons: First, it was posted kind of late, and a lot of people don’t scroll back past ATH on a given day, so it’s “new” to a lot of readers; Second, because Geoff Baker his ownself waded into the comments thread last night. I think that’s kind of cool and think that maybe some folks would like to read that too.
Here’s a primer on U.S. libel law and how it relates to blogging, in case you’re interested. It should be required reading for any blogger in this country.
If you get sued for libel, your defense can be “the truth — that what you wrote is true — or that, even if what you wrote was false, you did not act with malice. In Canada, where I began my career, the law is much tougher and states that your stuff had better be true, or you’re in hot water. It’s a bit more lax here in the U.S. with the whole “malice thing.
The U.S. Supreme Court has defined malice as publishing something with “either knowledge of falsity or in reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.”
I was going to write about 1000 words aping his piece from last week, substituting the dangers of amateurs engaging in the business of lawyering for his take on amateurs engaging in the business of professional journalism, but I couldn’t keep a straight face. I’m actually fine with Baker writing about this stuff because (a) it’s not rocket science; and (b) he’s right. Like I said last week, you’ve got to get your facts right if you’re going to get into the accusation business. That goes for bloggers too, and like Baker, I am similarly not impressed with the argument that a blogger can be looser with things if he’s only writing for a small, friendly audience (not that Jerrod Morris was being “loose” in my estimation).
But beyond that, Baker remains off his nut. Last week I (and many others) noted that Baker himself seemed to be doing far worse than Jerod Morris was doing when he suggested that the entire 2003 Seattle Mariners team had been on steroids. Today he defends himself:
Now, this may seem like the same thing to a lot of you, but there are important differences. The most obvious is that no individual was singled out. Believe me, this was intentional. There are ways to approach topics like this, to hint at stuff that may or may not have been going on, but it requires subtlety, not a sledgehammer.
What I wrote still gives every player on that 2004 team an “out” in which they can say: “It wasn’t me he was talking about.”
I suppose that’s fine if all you care about is avoiding legal liability for defamation — and even then I’m not sure that the Mariners as a team wouldn’t have an action for some sort for business disparagement or something — but certainly that’s not the operative ethical standard, is it? Anything is fair game as long as there’s an “out?” That’s not what Baker seemed to be all worked up about in his original piece. It was all about being tough and accountable and writing with integrity and credibility and all of that. Something greater than mere lawsuit avoidance, at any rate. If anything, Baker’s pained rationalization of his February piece directly contradicts his stated belief that looking one’s target in the eye matters. His accusation of non-specific Mariners with an “out” built-in is exactly the opposite of looking someone in the eye. It’s cowardly ass-covering.
Baker’s next point is the freakin’ cake topper:
Some of you have asked why I — and my colleagues — failed to denounce Rick Reilly for publishing similar things about ballplayers that Morris did. Well, the first answer is, many of my colleagues did denounce Reilly several years back when he challenged Sammy Sosa to take a drug test. Many thought he was unfairly singling Sosa out.
My second answer would be: Jerod Morris is not Rick Reilly.
Sorry, I don’t cotton to any system with exceptions that so thoroughly swallow the rules as the one Baker sketches out, and that’s even when the rules are weak moving targets like those he’s proposing. If we are to take Baker seriously, there’s a bogey that all of us writing about baseball need to hit — about thirty years of puff pieces, if I reckon correctly — and once we hit it, anything is fair game. If I’m wrong about this — if, for example, I get my license to be irresponsible at, say, 25 years — I hope that Baker lets me know, because I have a lot of garbage I want to fling at people.
Finally, Baker responds to criticism of his “White Jays” piece from a couple of years ago:
I’ve had people write in to ask me about my so-called “White Jays” series of three stories written for the Toronto Star six years ago. What those stories were supposed to be about was how the Blue Jays, after years of pipelining talent from Latin America, had suddenly become a team with the fewest amount of minority players in baseball. At a time when the number of Latin Americans in the game was exploding.
But the reasons behind that story were lost because of a terrible “White Jays” headline, substituted at the last minute as a front page teaser to the stories, without my consent, or input, or that of the editors working closest with the story.
I’m somewhat sympathetic here, because his “White Jays” story, while not his finest hour, wasn’t as bad as a lot of people made it out to be. But his explanation of this is instructive: other chefs in the kitchen screwed it up, not Geoff Baker. Kind of undercuts that whole notion he’s pushing about the importance and value of all of those editorial layers that separate the pros from the amateurs, doesn’t it?
Baker goes on and on and so could I, but we’d never come to agreement on everything. I do hope, however, that we can agree on this: people who write non-fiction for a living need to be accurate and take responsibility for their words no matter who they are and where they write.