Aug. 24 2016 12:03 AM

Libel, privacy and fairness buttress good journalism

Gawker, the intrusive and often salacious website, has been forced to close. It's about time.

And maybe, just maybe, its demise might signal a turn to more responsible reporting at the far end of the journalistic spectrum.

It’s apparent, even to casual computer users, that civil dialog in so many forms is suffering. Some of the problem is us. The Internet encourages unfiltered communication — not necessarily bad — but hardly costfree. What's missing is accountability.

If you doubt it, read the comments attached to news stories. The anonymity of social media has coarsened our conversations, freeing people from the social and legal norms that have generally served us well.

Granted I write this from a perspective framed by traditional journalistic standards. But these aren't accidental. Gawker was brought down by the successful invasion of a privacy lawsuit by wrestler Hulk Hogan (real name is Terry Bollea). He has been awarded $115 million in compensation — a ridiculous amount, far exceeding the harm to his reputation. But he convinced a jury that he was damaged by Gawker’s posting a sexually explicit tape.

"It's a good story," Gawker founder and owner Nick Denton told CBS News. “It's true. It's a matter of public concern. He's a very public figure, so if we were gonna have a story to go to trial, I'm actually pretty glad it's this one."

Now, does anyone really believe that Hulk Hogan's sex life is a matter of public concern?

"Gossip is the version of news that the authorities or the celebrities or the officials don't want people to know; it's the unauthorized version. I think people have a right to know the unauthorized version as well as the authorized version of news," Denton also told CBS News.

We don't, and why should we? There are two bodies of law that keep journalism on the tracks: libel and privacy. Add in fairness, and you have defined the boundaries that govern most news reporting.

Libel, according to The Associated Press, means injury to reputation and is further defined by state laws. Simplified, the law distinguishes between public figures and private individuals. Because he is Lansing's mayor, there is more latitude reporting on, or commenting about, Virg

Bernero than one of his neighbors. It's sometimes difficult to define this public/private boundary. In general, public figures intentionally make themselves prominent. And overriding all of this is truth. It's the most powerful defense.

For news organizations, libel is always a concern, but not really an issue. Ethics policies, lawyers and experience keep them safe. But online, libelous statements — injury to reputation — are common, enabled by lack of attribution and the flawed Communications Decency Act that shields websites from liability for comments posted by their users.

Privacy, particularly the expectation of privacy, is the more difficult frontier for journalists. It is where Gawker lost its bearings and the business.

The Hogan sex tapes show him in three sexual encounters with his best friend's wife. Sordid, I suppose, but private. Gawker defended its posting as freedom of the press. But freedom of the press isn't absolute.

News organizations debate libel and privacy issues against a background of shifting circumstances. What is the story? Is it important to the public? Who is involved? Are they public or private individuals? What is past practice?

Is the drug arrest of the son or daughter of a public figure fair game for reporting? Usually not. But what if the arrest is based on drugs found in the family's home? That makes it more newsworthy. Say the drug is heroin and the parent is an anti-drug crusading politician? Even more newsworthy.

At some point public interest may override the expectation of privacy. And increasingly, the standard I favor anyway is fairness. It's one of those standards that may be difficult to quantify, but you know it anyway.

The Gawker demise was colored by billionaire Peter Thiel's willingness to fund Hogan's lawsuit. It was payback for an item on Gawker's Valleywag blog in 2007 outing him. Gawker justified its report saying Thiel's sexuality was known widely, but not broadcast, in some circles. “ I thought that attitude was retrograde and homophobic,” Owen Thomas, author of the blog post, told The New York Times.

Why is that his call?

Thiel disagreed and his involvement stoked debate in some journalistic circles about big money interests trampling on the First Amendment press freedoms.

But the playing field is never level. Sites like Gawker have been able to buy their way out of trouble with secret settlements. They are the big dogs until bigger ones come along.

The best defense for journalism is attention to basic libel law, privacy law and an acknowledgment by news organizations that what they don't publish is as important as what they do put online or in print.