Blog Blowback, Virginia Style
One of the abiding mysteries of this here blogosphere is the relative invulnerability of blog postings to the forces that have kept the old media in check for the past half-century or so. With very rare exceptions, bloggers have thus far been blessedly free of the libel suits, legal threats, public shaming and other tools that have been used against the excesses of the print and broadcast media.
Now one of Virginia's most prominent and thoughtful bloggers is in hot water at work, and the state government, his employer, is trying to figure out to what extent it can and should hold an employee responsible for the blogging he does on his own time.
Will Vehrs, whose political analysis and random thoughts on things both serious and silly appears primarily on Commonwealth Conservative, one of the state's best political blogs, has been suspended from work for 10 days without pay. The reason: His blog held a caption contest, a good old blogger's standby, in which readers were encouraged to send in their wittiest efforts at labelling a funny photo.
Vehrs himself submitted a slew of captions, and while the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page considers them lacking in wit, I figure give the guy a break--they're funny enough.
The contest photo, taken from a newspaper in Martinsville in Virginia's Southside, showed a couple of country singers belting it out in less than alluring fashion, and Vehrs came up with a list of captions poking fun at the backwardness of life in rural Virginny. Not exactly groundbreaking comedy, but hey, it's the web. There's a lot of space to fill.
Problem: Vehrs' day job is as a manager for Virginia's Department of Business Assistance, which, understandably, gets a bit upset at anything that might discourage businesses from investing in the state's less affluent areas. And the photo in question came from a meeting of the Martinsville area's monthly economic development meeting. Uh-oh.
So: There were calls for Vehrs to resign, calls to sack him, and so on. But luckily, there were also many who stepped up to defend Vehrs, arguing that what he blogs on his own time and nickel is his own business as long as it's not breaking any laws or hurting anyone. And anyway, it was all in good fun and lighten up, willya?
The great thing about blogs is that they are indeed a wide-open frontier, and they are also sometimes self-correcting, though that particular feature is wildly exaggerated by the hard-core defenders of the form. I kind of like Vehrs' captions, but that's hardly the point. If I were Vehrs' employer, I'd probably want to sit him down and say, hey buddy, go on and blog all night for all I care, but if you're going to get into the work we do here at the office--economic development--please run it by me first, ok? And to his credit, Vehrs has apologized, profusely and repeatedly, even offering to quit blogging. Which would be a shame, because he's very good at it, and Virginia's political blogging scene is a vibrant and increasingly important piece of the state's politics.
But all of this raises once again the question of how and whether bloggers will and ought to be held responsible for their content. Since most bloggers are individuals in their proverbial pajamas, they don't have the assets that a big media company has, and therefore the most aggrieved readers are far less likely to sue them. But we've all read extremely vile and irresponsible things on the web that wouldn't have a prayer of seeing daylight in print. Somehow, as a society, we've figured out that what you read in blogs just doesn't have the same credibility as what you read in print or from a responsible news organization, so we don't bother to demand corrections or seek a redress of our grievances. And that's fine--going back to the revolutionary era tracts, we've had a long tradition in this country of letting folks mouth off, even untruthfully, in some forums, even as we insist on accuracy and fairness in others.
But as every parent tells (or should tell) their kids, what you put into cyberspace stays there for about an eternity, and anyone who does any hiring these days knows that employers are eagerly checking out applicants' web history, including the idiotic stuff they put on myspace and Facebook when they were 16. So it's blogger beware, for kids, for state employees, for everybody. I don't see any firing offense in what Will Vehrs has done; I don't even see anything worthy of suspension. But I do see yet another warning that what you type on the web is not just for the consumption of your friends and family. As they said a couple of generations ago, the whole world is watching.
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