Are bloggers journalists? Do they deserve press protections?

An Apple lawsuit against the operators of fan websites stirs debate on whether bloggers can claim legal protections.

In the small universe of powerful bloggers, Joshua Micah Marshall and John Hinderaker are separated by 900 miles and an even wider political divide. Mr. Marshall leans to the left from Washington D.C., while Mr. Hinderaker, a Minneapolis attorney, sits firmly in the conservative camp. But the two men do share something in common: No one is really sure what to think of them.

Are they journalists with an obligation to check facts, run corrections, and disclose conflicts of interest? Or are they ordinary opinion-slingers, like barbers or bartenders, with no special responsibilities - or rights?

Even in a country where most citizens probably have no idea what a blog is, it's not just an academic debate. Bloggers, some observers say, are becoming major players in everything from national politics to consumer trends. As a result, "their conflicts, motives, and agendas matter enormously," says Zephyr Teachout, who served as Internet director for the Howard Dean campaign.

Now in California, a court will soon decide whether bloggers have the same legal protections as journalists under "shield" laws that protect reporters from revealing their sources. Among Apple's targets is a 19-year-old blogger who twice recently leaked information about new company products weeks before Apple unveiled the products themselves.

If anything, the lawsuit furthers the reality that it only takes a bit of Web savvy and few dollars to wield enormous influence. Consider the Power Line blog, cofounded by Hinderaker. Last year, it helped set off the mass debunking of CBS's supposed memos about President Bush's National Guard service. Marshall's Talking Points Memo site, meanwhile, is a must-read among the Democratic elite.

While it doesn't cost Hinderaker and Marshall much money to maintain their sites, their claimed daily readership - 50,000 for Power Line, nearly 100,000 for Talking Points Memo - is larger than the paid circulation of all but about 75 American newspapers. There are countless other political blogs, too, with many boasting fans among congressmen and journalists, not to mention radio talk-show hosts.

Political blogs tend to share the same format: bloggers post several messages each day to a Web page, ranging from comments about current events to links to news stories. Depending on the blog, readers can respond by posting their own messages on the site.

To some, blogs sound like high-tech versions of newspaper op-ed pages full of commentaries and letters to the editor. But bloggers say they're more than that. "I describe my blog as my own personal magazine available to the entire reading public," says New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen.

Unlike traditional news outlets, however, many blogs have no editors, no publishers and, often, a staff of only one. And while some are supported by advertisers and contributions, many bloggers make no money at all.

But even if they lack the trappings of profit-driven media, bloggers like to use the word "journalist" to describe themselves, even if they work in other professions. "We're pundits, we're amateur journalists, we're concerned citizens, we're activists," says attorney Hinderaker.

Activists? That word raises eyebrows among blogger watchers. Plenty of blogs make no attempt to disguise their political leanings, and, in fact, Ms. Teachout helped hire two bloggers to serve as consultants to Dean's campaign.

Teachout, who says the hiring was no secret, thinks top bloggers should openly acknowledge conflicts of interest. The obligation comes with their power to influence journalists, says Teachout, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "My hunch is a lot of other citizens have a similar common-sense interest in disclosure."

On the bright side for bloggers, they may get rights along with journalistic responsibilities. The Apple lawsuit will reveal just how far the California shield law extends.

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kurt Opsahl, who represents two bloggers targeted by Apple, insists they're protected journalists. If they're forced to give up their sources, "the public will lose out on a vital outlet for independent news, analysis, and commentary," he says.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to whether bloggers act like traditional journalists, says University of Iowa law professor and First Amendment specialist Randall Bezanson. Simply expressing opinions to a tiny audience doesn't count, he says. If so, "then I'm a journalist when I write a letter to my mother reporting on what I'm doing. I don't think the [constitutional] free-press clause was intended to extend its protections to letters to mothers from sons."

Probably not. But what if Mom fact-checks and posts the letter on her blog for thousands of people to read? Is she a journalist then? Courts may make the final call.

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