Lewis "Scooter" Libby's trial, which opened last week, brings more than just the possibility of a sitting vice president testifying in a criminal trial. An organization known as the Media Bloggers Association (MBA) obtained two seats for bloggers out of the 100 set aside for the media in what is undoubtedly an overflowing courtroom.
According to a Washington Post article, after "detailed talks" between the president of the MBA and U.S. District Court officials, the court decided, "public awareness of court proceedings could be enhanced" by the attendance of bloggers. The two seats will be rotated among MBA members, including a documentary filmmaker and a freelance writer with a politically oriented blog.
Sheldon Snook, the administrative assistant to the court district's chief judge, told the Post, "Bloggers can bring a depth of reporting that some traditional media organizations aren't able to achieve because of space and time limitations." He also noted some bloggers could bring additional expertise to covering the trial.
The Post article also indicated an opinion of blogs, seemingly widely held by the traditional media, might justify the idea of credentialing.
The common journalistic practices of verifying facts, seeking both sides of a story and subjecting an article to editing are honored mostly in the breach. Innuendo and rumor ricochet around the Internet as blogs link from one to another, at times making defamatory voices indistinguishable from the many others involved in this experiment of free expression.
Snook's assessment seems more accurate than the newspaper's view. Even though neither of the bloggers mentioned appear to have a legal background, they have experience in public policy matters and the like.
That said, when I covered the state and federal courts as a wire service and daily newspaper reporter, most of my knowledge came from The Reporter and the Law by Lyle Denniston, the Baltimore Sun reporter who has covered the U.S. Supreme Court for decades. While Denniston's book is a superb resource for anyone wanting to understand the workings of the justice system, blawgers (law bloggers) undoubtedly can provide insight and expertise that non-lawyer reporters cannot.
At the same time, I would guess that in 99 percent of all trials, bloggers would have no problem attending. They would simply go and watch like any other member of the public (although "live blogging" or using a laptop in the courtroom may be subject to court restrictions depending on such things as noise levels or concern that material not presented at trial might get displayed on the laptop). After all, press rights of access to court proceedings are no greater or less than those of the public.
While MBA should be commended for helping gain blog access to a trial in which seating is limited, part of the WaPo story, if accurate, is disturbing. It says MBA's president wants to help create "an elite tier of bloggers." Admittance to this group would result from being credentialed by the MBA (which admits members only on recommendation of other members) and agreeing to adhere to its ethical standards. Those credentials would "win them access to news and sporting events, advance copies of new books for review and entrance to advance screening of movies." There are two problems with this concept.
First, much of this happens already without the MBA or any other organization being a credentialing entity. Bloggers attended and covered the national political conventions two years ago. Bloggers already get plenty of press releases and invitations to events from various campaigns and organizations, just like the traditional media. I know of at least one podcaster unaffiliated with any traditional media outlet who is considered part of the authorized media for a minor league hockey team in a large metropolitan area.
Blogcritics is one of several sites through which bloggers receive advance copies of books, CDs, and DVDs, and are invited to advance screenings. In fact, there are dozens of "litblogs" out there that the publishing industry recognizes and relies upon to provide coverage of books and publishing matters. Why create a credentialing system to provide opportunities that already exist?
Second, and perhaps more important, any effort to proclaim one segment of a group of similarly situated individuals as an "elite," entitled to advantages over the others, should raise red flags for all bloggers.
Designating an "elite tier" of bloggers seems particularly contrary to one of the best concepts underlying blogs – they allow almost anyone a low-cost means of participating in the marketplace of ideas by distributing ideas, analysis, and criticism worldwide. As such, blogs can help undercut the sad but often all too true observation of journalist A.J. Liebling: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."
Don't get me wrong. Adhering to certain ethical standards behooves bloggers and their readers, but it isn't just what the Post calls "this experiment of free expression" that is guilty of ethical lapses. Likewise, just how good a job did the WaPo and the rest of the renowned traditional press do "verifying facts [and] seeking both sides of a story" in the run up to the Iraq War?
An "elite" stamp from any particular organization does not guarantee anything. It certainly should never become the determinant of the legitimacy or value of any individual or collective blog.