Last week, Jefferson Parish interim President Steve Theriot filed suit against a handful of NOLA.com anonymous commenters for defamation of character, and as you may imagine, the reaction to Theriot’s lawsuit was immediate and critical: He is being “thin-skinned,” attempting to “stifle free speech” and “intimidate his detractors.”
For the most part, I happen to agree with the criticism of Mr. Theriot’s lawsuit. As the old adage goes, if you can’t stand the heat, then get out the kitchen. Although Mr. Theriot may believe his online detractors were engaging in purposeful deceit, their criticisms, at least those that have been republished, seem relatively pedestrian and somewhat laughable. It’s not as if someone published his pregnant wife’s personal cell phone number and encouraged people to harass her on a daily basis. No one ever made up any stories about Theriot being accused by the Ethics Board of a crime or having an affair with one of his employees. No one ever published a picture of his six-year-old daughter as a part of an attack piece. If you are in search of that type of online defamation, Central Louisiana is a goldmine. Here in Central Louisiana, the politicians and public officials don’t sue bloggers for defamation of character; the bloggers sue one another, which is irony of epic proportions.
But, however misguided, Mr. Theriot’s lawsuit does call attention to an issue worth discussing. For the most part, the comments with which he believes to be defamatory were not published on someone’s personal blog, a site that anyone can create at no charge thanks to companies like Google and WordPress (thanks, WordPress). They were published on the online website of The Times-Picayune, arguably Louisiana’s most important and venerable news institution. Even if Mr. Theriot’s accusations of defamation seem thin-skinned and vindictive, I still have to wonder why newspapers allow for unmoderated and anonymous commentary. Well, actually, I know why: they rightfully believe it bolsters online traffic. But I worry that when a newspaper decides to allow for the unfettered inclusion of anonymous commentary, without any real or meaningful method of verifying a writer’s identity and without any editorial oversight, they are unwittingly contributing to their own eventual suicide.
A few years ago, I wrote a handful of letters to the editor of The Town Talk, and graciously, they always agreed to print my letters. But before they agreed to print anything, they would call me up to verify that I was, indeed, the author. A smart thing to do. It ensured their integrity and safeguarded against plagiarism, and for a newspaper, particularly a community’s paper of record, those things should be of critical importance.
Today, this type of verification and commitment toward editorial and journalistic integrity are being undermined by newspaper executives who must believe that by sacrificing any meaningful oversight or responsibility over the publication of online, third-party content, they can drive exponentially more visitors to their websites.
It’s a calculated business decision, a cheap fix that ultimately damages a newspaper’s credibility as an institution and undermines the profession of journalism. We all have the freedom of speech, regardless of whether or not a privately-held newspaper decides to invest in an online forum.
Maybe I am being traditionalist here, but I believe there should always be a distinction between something published under the banner of a community’s newspaper of record and something anonymously published on an anonymous blog. We expect our newspapers to ensure the credibility of their sources.
The Town Talk and The Times-Picayune shouldn’t want to be reliant on anonymous forums. They should strive to attract readers through great reporting.
More than anything else, people read newspapers for quality, relevant, and well-written information, but when this information is allowed to be supplemented by and framed in the context of completely unedited and totally anonymous commentary, newspapers willfully concede their authority and undermine their credibility.
Theriot’s lawsuit may be wrong-headed, but The Times-Picayune’s exuberant self-defense has very little to do with a real commitment toward free speech and much more to do with justifying a business decision that epitomizes a rejection of journalistic integrity.
Your anonymous comments are welcome, though I reserve all rights. This is a blog, not a newspaper.