I have a problem with anonymous comments on a blog. I think in the public square as our forefathers envisioned it, you could say whatever you want, but being in the square we would know who you are. That said, many of the early pamphleteers were anonymous. So the tradition is well established. The right to hand out anonymous fliers was protected as recently as 1995 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now comes the issue of whether anonymous blog commenters can hide behind their anonymity to libel anyone with scurrilous charges. Apparently, the Wausau Daily Herald revealed names of anonymous commenters who posted charges of malfeasance by a top administrator of a small Wisconsin town. After the paper did so as the administrator demanded, its parent, Gannett, apologized for what it said was a mistake. The newspaper conglomerate said it had a duty to conceal the names, claiming that such comments were due the same protection as anonymous sources in a newspaper story.
Courts have recently agreed that state shield laws apply to the anonymous commenters.
Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee university, thinks that’s wrong headed. Comparing anonymous sources to anonymous bloggers doesn’t hold water.
Plainly, there are good reasons to seek anonymity: You might fear reprisal or embarrassment, or might simply want your ideas considered independently of who you are. And the court said those preferences should not affect your right to comment, especially on matters of public policy.
But suppose that leaflet isn’t taking a stand on a school tax. It’s a false and damaging denunciation of some school board member. And she wants to sue.
The authors are anonymous, but she knows where the leaflet was printed, so she persuades a judge to order the printer to disclose her tormentors. The printer is supposed to comply.
Unless it’s a news organization. Then, apparently, the printer is supposed to resist. And the board member who was slimed is out of luck.
That seems unfair, unless there’s some good, overriding public benefit at stake. That’s where the anonymous-source rationale is being invoked: Some news sources provide valuable information that they might never furnish unless they knew they’d be safe from reprisal. The writers of the anonymous posts are no different.
Except that anonymous posters are nothing like confidential sources.
First, a confidential source is not anonymous; the reporter knows who it is and is obligated to evaluate the source’s credibility. The identity of the anonymous poster, on the other hand, is truly unknown. He or she could be an ex-spouse, a delusional sociopath or both. Nobody knows.
Second, no one even tries to verify the information from the anonymous poster. Information from a confidential source should be, and normally is, evaluated and scrutinized before it’s published.
Reporter shield laws are an expression of trust. Lawmakers have said, in effect, that they have enough regard for the value of news, and for the capacity of the journalist to assess information from vulnerable sources, that they’ve carved out a huge area of discretion. To ensure the flow of publicly significant information, they allow the journalist to help people with valuable information to stay in the shadows when the journalist determines, in good faith, that they must.
That’s a huge grant of trust. And claiming for anonymous posters the protections that confidential sources deserve debases the currency, makes a whistleblower no different from a crank. As an ethical matter it’s indefensible. As a political reality, it’s a surefire way to guarantee the demise of source protections.
Can bloggers earn that “grant of trust”? As many bloggers themselves are anonymous, I wouldn’t hold your breath. I am certain there will be more challenges to the idea that anonymity should granted as a safeguard for malicious libel.