Flea, The Boston Globe and Morality in Journalism and Blogging

(Having discussed the trial of medical blogger Flea, I turn today to coverage by the Boston Globe)

Was it just me, I wondered? Flea’s name was plastered on the front page of the Boston Globe and I thought, “Is that really necessary?”

Leaving aside the issue of whether this pediatrician brought undue attention on himself due to his blog entries about his medical malpractice trial, we have to turn to the conduct of the Globe and ask some questions:

Was the outing of a doctor’s pseudonymous blog in a courtroom a human interest story? Yes.

Was it interesting enough to write about? Yes.

Was his name critical to the story? Well, no.

Did this deserve to be a front-page story, above the fold (without his name)? Maybe. Human interest stories do appear there, but when they sit atop a human tragedy, in this case the death of a 12-year-old, there really isn’t much of the “fun” quotient usually associated with such prominent placement. Page 10 of the local news, maybe.

When I saw the article appear I was surprised both by its extraordiary placement on the front page, and more significantly, the outing of the doctor’s actual name by the Globe in such a spot. So too with the names of the patient and his father. While the episode was surely interesting, these informational nuggets added little to the story. They were, however, guaranteed to bring heartache and pain for those named.

This is not a discussion of whether the Globe could do this — the First Amendment clearly protects them — but whether they should do it in the manner they did. It goes to morality, not to law.

After deciding to use the names, and deciding to blast the story with the acerbic blog comments across the front page, the writer then engages in a self-fulfilling prophecy:

The case is a startling illustration of how blogging, already implicated in destroying friendships and ruining job prospects, could interfere in other important arenas.

That’s true. It can interfere in important arenas. So why did they do it? Is it the policy of the Globe to inflict pain on people simply because they can? Was there some kind of sick gratification in seeing a young doctor get his comeuppance for perceived arrogance in his writings, and damn the consequences? While he was outed in the courtroom, it was an outing no one else knew of beyond those limited confines. Until, that is, the Globe thought it would be fun to blast it to the rest of the world.

I asked the plaintiff’s attorney, Elizabeth Mulvey, about the Globe article, which appeared over two weeks after the trial was over. She said:

I asked the Globe not to use either party’s name, as I felt both sides had been through enough and that it really didn’t add anything to the story, and also that I was not the original source of the story, which was leaked to the Globe by someone not involved with the case. Although I would have preferred not to comment at all, I felt that it was necessary to correct some misinformation supplied by this source. I really feel that it is regrettable that, because of this source’s indiscretion, both my clients and the doctor were subjected to unnecessary pain.

The result of the Globe’s decision to use names is that this story will repeatedly pop up when new patients Google this doctor years from now, since numerous blogs have now reprinted Flea’s name while quoting the article. That seems grossly unfair given that it results from his prominence as a medical blogger rather than any wrongdoing as a doctor.

But those bloggers that have already published his name, simply by quoting directly from the article, can un-do some of the damage they may have inadvertantly done if, upon reflection, they feel an injustice has been done. They can go back to their blog postings and edit out his name — using instead his initials, first name, or pseudonym — so that they are not unintended accomplices to the Globe’s lack of good judgment. The question to ask: Should Flea be permanently branded, in his real-life profession, because of this? Bloggers may not only wish to make that modest edit, but to explain to their readers what they have done and why, so that others might follow.

Will that scrub the Internet of such references? Of course not. But it might cut down on what could be page, after page, after page of such results. No matter what some might think of the comments Flea made, the punishment that the Globe sought to inflict upon him seems vastly disproportional to any sins he committed with his blog.

The Globe created a very high profile problem. The blogosphere magnified it. Can any of that damage be undone? It seems like an experiment worth trying.

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