The Cleveland Plain Dealer sparked an ethical controversy when a front-page story alleged that one of its legions of anonymous online commenters was a local judge, and that the judge had posted controversial comments about at least three cases over which she presided. Plain Dealer editor Susan Goldberg talks about the expectation of privacy on the internet and why the newspaper decided to publish the judge’s online identity.
Heart Broken, In Despair
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BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Journalists have long protected the identities of anonymous sources, but what about the anonymous online commenter? The Cleveland Plain Dealer faced controversy last month when it ran a front page story about a frequent commenter who posted under the user name lawmiss. The newspaper alleged that lawmiss was none other than Cuyahoga County Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold and that the judge had posted controversial opinions about cases and lawyers in her own courtroom, including capital murder cases. The judge denied the charges and the newspaper was criticized for breaching the trust of its anonymous online commenters. According to the editor of The Plain Dealer, Susan Goldberg, Saffold’s online identity was discovered only after a particularly offensive and suspiciously knowledgeable comment was made about the relative of a newspaper employee.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Our reporters are criticized on our website all the time. People say all kinds of things. We do try to make sure that they're not about hate speech or personal disparagement. But this one caught our Web editor’s attention because it talked about the mental state of one of our reporters’ relatives, and so it really had a degree of inside knowledge that was a little bit troubling. So he went and decided to figure out who lawmiss was. At this time we were able to connect people’s handles online with their email addresses, so he made the connection and got the real email address.
BOB GARFIELD: I find it vexing that the editorial staff of The Plain Dealer had the ability to locate the email address for the person posting these comments.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Well, let me say first that we are no longer able to get that information. After this happened, this was something that was changed by our parent company.
BOB GARFIELD: Then what happened?
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Then he did two things that anybody can do. One was he ran the email address through a Google search and it came up to be Judge Saffold’s email. Then the other thing he did was he went to see all of the other comments that lawmiss had made on our site, so that’s when we discovered that lawmiss had made 80-plus comments.
BOB GARFIELD: About ongoing cases presided over by Judge Saffold, correct?
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Right, and these were not small cases. Two of the cases that lawmiss commented on are death penalty cases. One was of a firefighter who shot three people to death, and lawmiss was complaining that he didn't get the death penalty because he was white, rather than black. And the other capital case is the one before Judge Saffold right now, that of Anthony Sowell, who is accused of the serial murders of 11 women in Cleveland.
BOB GARFIELD: Reporters, including The Plain Dealer, will refuse to cooperate with courts and with law enforcement in identifying an anonymous source on the grounds of reporter-source privilege. This would, I'm sure, strike some people as hypocritical in the extreme, no?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I have to tell you, Susan, that if I were the editor of The Plain Dealer and I had been shown the evidence that this commenter lawmiss was a presiding judge over the very cases on which lawmiss was commenting, it would be all over my page one. I have no quibbles there. However, I might also say whoever got this information or their boss should be fired, including possibly me. This is quite a conundrum, but, you know, how do you, the editor who made that easy decision, deal with the editor who permitted her staff to dig into private information about commenters?
SUSAN GOLDBERG: I don't think it was a super easy decision. We didn't, in fact, publish the next day. We made sure we got lots of comment and we made sure the stories were fair. We also did a companion story that also ran on page one about our decision to do it and sort of the ethical firestorm that we knew that this was going to kick up. But as far as the editor who looked at this, we didn't have a discussion ahead of time. It was just something he went ahead and did. Maybe it was a good decision, maybe it wasn't a good decision. To me, okay, the decision was made. That’s over. Now we've got to go forward, and what do we do?
BOB GARFIELD: I should mention though that the judge’s daughter has stepped forward to claim authorship of some of the comments. Is it possible that, in fact, she had used her mom’s email handle to comment online there?
SUSAN GOLDBERG: I think anything is possible. Judge Saffold’s daughter is 23 years old. The daughter does live in Columbus. These comments involved some great detailed knowledge of the court system in Cleveland and politics in Cuyahoga County. I don't know that we will know for sure. We do know, however, because we did a public records request, that Judge Saffold’s computer at the courthouse had been used to connect to Plaindealer.com when several of the lawmiss comments were made. Now, they dispute that but that’s what our public records request turned up.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s yet one other complication to that story, and that is that Judge Saffold has had, at least as reported in The Plain Dealer, an erratic history on the bench and frequently has been the subject of stories which portray some of her statements and judicial decisions in not the best light. And, by the way, she has recently hauled one of your reporters [LAUGHS] into court to demand that he reveal the source of some information that he had in one of these very murder cases that we've been discussing. Have your motives been questioned?
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Certainly, our motives have been questioned. They've been questioned by Judge Saffold. I think that they're questioned by some people in the community. So I would just say that we're, we’re viewing all of these as individual incidents and doing the best journalistic job that we can do. But, you know, Bob, what I've got to say here is what keeps getting lost in this debate is the right of this defendant who is on trial for his life to a fair and impartial judge. I would imagine that those cases could be subject of appeal. I would imagine that The Plain Dealer would be just devastated by criticism about sitting on relevant and important information. The lawyer who was criticized by Judge Saffold as being – and forgive my language – but an Amos and Andy buffoon, who is one of the lawyers representing Anthony Sowell, the, the man accused of all the murders, he had initially asked for Judge Saffold to recuse herself. And after they talked about this on Monday, they decided to have sort of a one-week cooling-off period, and so we'll see what happens next. This is certainly not [LAUGHS] the end of this story.
BOB GARFIELD: Susan, thank you so much for joining us.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Well, thank you, Bob. I appreciate being here.
BOB GARFIELD: Susan Goldberg is the editor of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
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