Andrew Sullivan goes there

It was only a matter of time before a wild rumor about the Palin family broke into the mainstream. Now the line has been crossed by Andrew Sullivan, who blogs about it at the The rumor: Sarah Palin is not the mother of young Trig Palin. The mother is actually her 16-year-old daughter, Bristol.

I strongly believe Sullivan should have laid off this. I could have linked to it yesterday, but didn’t, since at that point it was only fodder for a pseudonymous diarist at the Daily Kos. This is the sort of hurtful story that reputable news organizations should check out thoroughly before injecting into the debate. I mean, come on. Does anyone think Josh Marshall hasn’t been following this? Or dozens of other liberal political blogs and Web sites, including Media Nation? None of us went there, and Sullivan shouldn’t have, either.

Interestingly, the Huffington Post beat Sullivan with a double-reverse flip, raising it only to tut-tut about ethical standards at the Kos.

But now, thanks to Sullivan’s reputation as one of the early blogfathers and the prestige of the Atlantic, this story is, for all intents and purposes, Out There. Which news organization will be the first to debunk it? Or, uh, not?

Instant update: Sullivan is already defending himself:

The job of a press is to ask questions which have a basis in fact. Read for yourself the full chronology here. See whether you are certain there are no legitimate questions worth asking. I have claimed nothing.

Sorry, but it doesn’t wash. The job of the press is to ask questions and then to present its findings to the public — or, in this case, if it found nothing, to do its best to make sure the story never saw the light of day.

If Sullivan was that worked up about about the Palin rumor, he should have e-mailed some reporters he knows and asked if they were on the case. This is the definition of a story that shouldn’t be hashed out publicly.


Political gold

Let’s not kid ourselves — the possibility that the Republican National Convention will be scaled back, and that John McCain will accept the nomination from the Gulf Coast, is political gold for the McCain-Palin ticket.

I’m not saying it’s the wrong thing to do. I’m just saying.

Cape Cod blogger is sued for libel

A Cape Cod blogger who criticized a group of Barnstable residents for filing a lawsuit aimed at stopping a dredging project in Barnstable Harbor has himself been sued — for libel.

Peter Robbins, who describes himself on his blog as a retired homicide investigator, wrote a post this past March 11 in which he referred to the anti-dredging suit as “this, NIMBY, frivolous, malicious action is doing nothing but stalling the inevitable and costing us the taxpayers unnecessary time and money.” (“NIMBY” stands for “not in my backyard.”) And he identified by name the people who brought the suit, saying that “these are the people who are costing you.”

I’m not going to wade in too deeply until more information becomes available. So far, the only account of the suit is this one, on the Web site Cape Cod Today, which hosts Robbins’ blog. It’s impossible to know precisely what constitutes the alleged libel, because Cape Cod Today publisher Walter Brooks reportedly removed “certain phrases and sentences” at the request of Paul Revere III, the lawyer for plaintiff Joseph Dugas, one of the people identified by Robbins as suing to stop the dredging project.

Presumably all parties agree that what’s there now is not libelous, so there’s no sense in analyzing it. What would be telling is to see what got deleted.

There are several interesting aspects to this suit, and they will be worth following as we learn more:

1. The legal liability of the lone blogger. Under federal law, a Web site such as Cape Cod Today can be considered an Internet service provider exempt from liability if it merely acts as a host for bloggers such as Robbins, and is not involved in actively soliciting, editing and publishing their work. As long as a publisher such as Brooks responds to a request to remove allegedly libelous material, he is free and clear.* That leaves the blogger in an incredibly vulnerable position.

That doesn’t mean Cape Cod Today has thrown Robbins over the side of the boat. The site continues to host Robbins’ blog, and Brooks himself has been calling people’s attention to the suit. But the situation is very different from a reporter for a news organization getting sued, a situation that invariably leads to the organization’s being named as a defendant as well.

2. The privacy of anonymous commenters. According to the Cape Cod Today report, Dugas is suing not just Robbins but also an anonymous commenter who posted under the name “noggin.” The comment has been removed. Cape Cod Today requires registration before anyone can comment, which means that Brooks and company may know who “noggin” is. That, in turn, could lead to a legal battle over whether to reveal his or her identity. (Presumably “noggin” could have registered under a phony name, too, which would make tracking him or her down much more difficult, but not necessarily impossible.)

3. The role of the anti-SLAPP statute. Robbins’ lawyer, Peter Morin, is quoted as saying, “This matter is a textbook example of the justification for an anti-SLAPP statute that protects the right of individuals to comment on matters of significant public concern.” The term “SLAPP” stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” Morin is claiming that the intent of Dugas’ suit is to silence Robbins and prevent him from participating in a matter of public interest. (Judith Miller — yes, that Judith Miller — has written a good piece on anti-SLAPP laws.)

This is of particularly interest to me, as I recently wrote an affidavit on behalf of a defendant in a libel case who was claiming protection under the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law. In Massachusetts, unlike, say, California, it is not firmly established that anti-SLAPP protection extends to the media — it’s aimed more at community activists.

But with small, independently owned newspapers (yes, there are some) and bloggers, the dividing line between community activism and journalism doesn’t always exist. Advocacy journalism, after all, is both advocacy and journalism.

To be continued — I’m sure.

*Correction: Not exactly. See the comments of David Ardia in this update.

Photo of Sandy Neck Light in Barnstable Harbor (cc) by Mark Crosby, and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

For the bridge before she was against it

As you may have heard, Alaska’s two largest daily newspapers have published editorials questioning the Sarah Palin choice. The more negative is the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which says in part:

Most people would acknowledge that, regardless of her charm and good intentions, Palin is not ready for the top job. McCain seems to have put his political interests ahead of the nation’s when he created the possibility that she might fill it.

The Anchorage Daily News isn’t quite so harsh, although this editorial does say “it’s stunning that someone with so little national and international experience might be heartbeat away from the presidency.”

The Daily News also confirms that stories of Palin’s opposition to the “Bridge to Nowhere” are largely fictitious — and that when Palin herself said on Friday, “I told Congress, thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere,” she was, at the very least, leaving the most relevant facts unspoken.

“Palin was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it,” the Daily News reports, telling us, among other things, that her support for the project was a key issue in her successful 2006 gubernatorial campaign. After federal funding was withdrawn, she changed her mind, leading to accusations that did it in a way to attract national attention.

Let’s get real: If federal funding had been withdrawn for the Big Dig, Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld would have been against it.

The Daily News also reports that Walt Monegan, the state commissioner of public safety, whom Palin fired, says both Palin and her husband, Todd Palin, contacted him about her ex-brother-in-law, a state trooper involved in a nasty divorce with Gov. Palin’s sister. Monegan claims he was fired in large measure because of his refusal to get rid of the inconvenient trooper.

This would appear to contradict statements made by both Palins. And there may be e-mails.

The not-so-big get

Check out the “Meet the Press” front page right now and you will see this: “Exclusive! Tim Pawlenty.”

“The media” cheer Obama (II)

More-direct evidence of how silly The Hill’s item was concerning people with press passes cheering for Obama: Charley Blandy of Blue Mass Group saw my post and followed up, noting that BMG bloggers were among those wearing green press passes and cheering.

Blandy writes: “In other words, the reporter at the Hill may well have seen partisan bloggers like us, who had green press credentials, whooping and cheering for Obama. That’s a problem because … ?”

Palin favored the “Bridge to Nowhere”

Flummoxed conservatives looking for something nice to say about Sarah Palin cite her opposition to the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a proposed $398 million Alaskan boondoggle that John McCain fought against. For instance, here’s what New York Times columnist David Brooks said on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” last night:

But what he saw when he looked at her, according to the people I spoke to, is someone who fights the same fights I fight. The first gateway sort of fight that he thought they have in common was the bridge to nowhere. He’s been talking about that for years. She’s the one who killed it.

Wrong. As The New Republic’s Bradford Plumer shows, citing reports from the Anchorage Daily News and Palin’s own official statement, Palin supported the bridge at every step, and dropped it from her list of priorities only when it became clear that federal funding wasn’t going to be forthcoming. In her statement, she even criticizes congressional opponents of the bridge, including, by implication, McCain:

Despite the work of our congressional delegation, we are about $329 million short of full funding for the bridge project, and it’s clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island. Much of the public’s attitude toward Alaska bridges is based on inaccurate portrayals of the projects here. But we need to focus on what we can do, rather than fight over what has happened.

Here’s an AP report from Sept. 22, 2007, noting that Palin had withdrawn her support for the bridge because of lack of funding.