There currently is a controversy in the blogger community about the Sacremento Bee‘s publisher ordering that part of a blog by one of her columnists be deleted and that all the newspaper’s blogs be edited prior to publication.
Was the Sacramento Bee’s publisher right to delete the comments a columnist posted on one of the newspaper’s blogs? We think yes.
First, here is the background: Sacramento Bee Columnist Daniel Weinbtraub posted online some comments about California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. The state Legislature’s Latino Caucus did not like those comments and wrote a protest letter to Sacramento Bee Publisher Janis Besler Heaphy, who decided that she didn’t like Weintraub’s comments either. She ordered those comments deleted.
Many bloggers are incensed that a newspaper would dare edit or delete anything that appeared on a reporter’s or a columnist’s blog for that newspaper. Many journalists and U.S. First Amendment advocates are incensed that a newspaper would order retracted or delete something a columnist wrote or order that a columnists blog be edited before publication.
We’re all for the First Amendment in general. But the First Amendment fact remains that someone is legally and proprietarily responsible for whatever is printed in a publication. At the Sacramento Bee, that person is Janis Besler Heaphy. Should a newspaper publish anything that is libelous or defamatory, it is the publisher who personally risks legal liability, which can include jail time. That’s the major responsibility of a publisher. She can merely lose her job if the newspaper isn’t profitable; but she can go to jail if the newspaper is libelous. It may be a hard concept for some journalists to swallow, but a publisher’s function isn’t to provide a publication from which her editors, reporters, and columnists can say whatever they want. Her function is to let them do that within her judgement and responsibility.
Readers expect that responsibility and probity from a newspaper. That responsibility and probity is also why the law (at least in the US) gives newspapers special protections. Some journalists might complain that Besler Heaphy’s actions prevented readers from reading Weintraub’s unvarnished comments. Her actions did indeed do that, but it was her right to judge whether or not to do that.
Were Weintraub’s published comments about Bustamente libelous or defamatory? We personally don’t think so and, had we been publisher of the Sacramento Bee, would probably have let those comments stand. But the fact is that it would be Besler Heaphy who would suffer the legal penalties if those comments were and she exercised her right to decide. Some publishers take greater risks than others with those responsibilities. Some unfortunately fear not only a court’s libel judgement against them, but even the expense of successfully defending against a libel claim. Perhaps that was the case at the Sacramento Bee. Or perhaps Besler Heaphy merely decided that Weintraub was taking too many risks without her permission.
To excercise their responsiblities, some publishers, primarily those at weekly newspapers, will read every story prior to publication. But that can’t easily be done at daily newspapers (particularly one as large as the Sacramento Bee). In those case, the publisher delegates her responsibilities to her editors. They are there not only to correct spelling and grammar and to chose which stories to publish, but to help the publisher judge what newspaper staff comments should or should not be published. By ordering that Weintraub’s blog be edited prior to publication, Besler Heaphy was merely ordering what has been standard editorial procedure at newspapers for centuries. She was ordering what readers for expect in the responsibility and probity of a newspaper.