For the final case studies session, Columbia Journalism School professor, CJR contributor, and New Republic music critic David Hajdu introduced two men “whose work “illuminates how the very nature of journalism is changing.”
The first to speak was Robert Cox, president of the Media Blogger Association (MBA), whose case discussed increasing legal threats to bloggers and resources at their disposal. The MBA provides legal resources, helps
arrange blogger press passes, and provides media liability insurance, among other services. Cox told the previously undisclosed story of a blogger and Huffington Post contributor who had called the MBA when she found out she was being sued for defamation. The blogger had wrongly reported that a schoolmistress had been charged in a sexual abuse case. When the blogger called Cox, however, she seemed defensive and complained that the schoolmistress had not called her to correct the mistake, so she had done nothing wrong. Cox believes the case against the blogger has been dropped. But misunderstandings are “very typical of the bloggers I’ve talked to,” he said. “They don’t have any understanding of the laws that relate to what they’re doing.” That’s not always the case, Cox added, but blogs clearly have the power for “transformative good” or “great harm.”
Cox then described the MBA’s history and work. It was founded in 2004 as a “mutual defense pact” for bloggers, who have “inherent legal and operational risks.” Though they’re often one-person or small operations, they are just
as exposed as any major media company. Cox said that blogs took off in earnest four years ago, and lawsuits “immediately followed.” The MBA has been involved in over 400 cases. The vast majority have been defamation
cases, like the blogger from Wisconsin, but there have also been a number of privacy and copyright violations. Sectors like pharmaceuticals, real estate, and government “tend to be” the most litigious. “But the good news is that
bloggers mostly win,” Cox said. Thirty-five percent of cases “go away,” and bloggers win 92 percent of judgments and settlements. But the cost of defense has been going up and settlements have been as high as $20 million.
The MBA has a multi-faceted response to this trend. It offers education and training, and partnered with the Poynter Institute and News University to create an online media law course. It also provides a hotline, tips and
referrals. It created the first-of-its-kind media liability insurance that covers defamation, invasion of privacy and
copyright infringement that is cheaper than market rate. The MBA also provides peer-to-peer support networks.
Delivering the second case was Brian Lehrer, a Peabody Award-winning WNYC radio journalist and host of the The Brian Lehrer Show, who talked about some of his recent “crowd sourcing” projects. Lehrer said that as host, he is less interested in telling listeners “what he thinks” than in “starting a conversation.” One of his core principles, he said, is to “foster democracy.” One of his first crowd sourcing projects was to solicit information from listeners in order to create a map of New York City showing what percentage of cars parked on various blocks were SUVs. It “didn’t break any news,” Lehrer said, but it engaged the audience and he was able to peg a
number of on-air segments to the SUV map.