Despite my determination not to get sucked into blogland this week, things keep coming up. This morning I listened to a voice-mail left last week (sorry) by someone who didn’t identify himself, but who sounded as though he is a lawyer. He seemed to be quite familiar with Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy’s libel case against the Boston Herald, and was contemptuous of my commentary about it.
I didn’t save his message, so no direct quotes. But I do want to consider his two main arguments:
1. Anyone who has done his homework would know that the reason Murphy asked Herald publisher Pat Purcell for $3.26 million rather than the $2.1 million a jury awarded him was because Murphy was figuring in interest.
There is a simple answer to this: No. Not true.
To review, on Feb. 19, immediately after the verdict, the Boston Globe quoted David Rich, one of Murphy’s lawyers, as saying that the award amounted to $2.7 million with the interest that had accumulated since the suit’s filing three years earlier. One day later, Murphy sent a letter to Purcell seeking $3.26 million as the price for ending the case.
Nor has Murphy’s lead counsel, Howard Cooper, explained the mark-up in a convincing manner. Last week, Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Phoenix covered a news conference at which Cooper said the $2.7 million has grown to $2.95 million, as the 12 percent interest clock keeps ticking away. That makes sense. So what’s up with the $3.26 million? Jurkowitz wrote: “He [Cooper] claimed the judge’s dollar figure ‘could be seen to represent a hypothetical discount from the Herald’s worst case scenario,’ in which the paper could end up owing more.”
Huh? If Purcell had paid Murphy $2.7 million right after the trial ended, wouldn’t that have been the end of it? The “worst case scenario,” after all, involves several years of presumably fruitless appeals, mounting interest costs and huge legal fees, above and beyond what Purcell had already paid. None of those factors would have been in play last February. So we still don’t know what the answer is. Note: I’m not saying there isn’t a good answer — that would be going beyond the facts (see point #2, below). I’m just saying the $3.26 million hasn’t been adequately explained.
By the way, I’ve seen commentators — including at least one newspaper columnist — who haven’t even grasped the elementary point that interest costs have long since rendered the $2.1 million figure irrelevant. So this is hardly a shortcoming of blogs per se. (And in the case of Media Nation, not a shortcoming at all.) Which brings me to my caller’s next point.
2. It’s irresponsible for a blogger to write without doing any reporting. The lesson of the Herald case is that you have an obligation to report before you start typing.
Ah, the central dilemma of every blogger, or at least every one who takes his journalistic obligations seriously. Quite frankly, this is something with which I wrestle all the time. Most items on Media Nation, as well as across blogland, are unreported in the traditional sense — that is, I’m not picking up the phone and interviewing sources.
But that’s not what most blogs are. Rather, they consist of commentary on what other media are reporting. Is that a lower order of journalism than what you read in a good newspaper every day? Yes, of course. But it has value to the extent that a blogger can make sense out of the news in ways that you might not have thought about before.
A key to responsible blogging, I think, is disciplining yourself not to go beyond what you find in your excursions across the mediascape. Thus, I see absolutely nothing wrong with noting that Murphy asked Purcell for some $500,000 more than the $2.7 million judgment-plus-interest; that the tone of his letters to Purcell was bullying; and that well-known media observer Alex Jones had said the letters called Murphy’s own judgment into question. None of this goes beyond what’s on the public record. On the other hand, ascribing motives to Murphy’s behavior would be out of bounds unless I had some special insight I had gleaned — insight I could only gain by interviewing people.
I’m also free to express my opinion. And it remains my opinion that the Herald’s journalism with regard to Murphy, though sloppy and sensationalistic, did not rise to the level of reckless disregard for the truth, which is the threshold a public official such as Murphy must meet in a libel case. It is also my opinion that Murphy should have taken the Herald on in the court of public opinion — Holmes’ “marketplace of ideas” — rather than trying to intimidate the news media into soft-pedaling its reporting on public officials lest they be hit with a multimillion-dollar libel judgment.
Murphy has every right to hold his reputation in high regard. I wish he had the same regard for the central purpose of the First Amendment, which is to encourage vigorous, contentious and even irresponsible discussion of public affairs.