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iPhone legal drama: will being ‘hip’ come back to bite Gawker Media?

Prominent blog network operator Gawker Media paid only $5,000 for the biggest tech scoop ever, but the total cost is proving to be far
greater for Gawker Media.

As has been widely reported, police raided the home of Gawker Media
employee Jason Chen. Chen is an editor for Gawker-owned Gizmodo, and is
the man seen showing off the next-generation that was left in a Silicon
Valley bar by an Apple employee before making its way to Gawker.

According to some legal observers, Gawker and Chen may have violated numerous laws when they acquired and publicized the yet-to-be-released iPhone 4G prototype. But according to others, the police actually violated the law. The argument: Chen is a journalist, and journalists are afforded certain protections under U.S. law.

Not surprisingly, that’s Gawker’s defense and while it’s quite unclear whether or not the laws protecting journalists would actually apply here, some have pointed out that Gawker’s ‘journalist defense‘ is somewhat ironic. They point to a statement previously made by Gawker owner Nick Denton that makes Gawker’s defense look somewhat less believable:

We may inadvertently commit journalism. That is not the institutional intention.

I’m not an attorney, so it’s unclear whether or not Denton’s statement could influence a determination as to whether Chen is a ‘journalist‘ in the eyes of the law, but Denton’s statement does raise an interesting point: bloggers are often quick to obfuscate their role in the business of news. While they often seek the access typically provided to journalists, they are also often quick to point out that they’re not journalists. After all, criticisms relating to accuracy and ethics are easily dismissed when one can turn around and say “I’m a blogger, not a journalist.

Sometimes, in an apparent effort to seem hip, they make statements like Denton’s. Yet as we are now seeing, it’s tough to have your cake and eat it too. If Gawker bloggers deserve certain protections under the law reserved for journalists, as Gawker now argues they do, it’s safe to assume that Denton will be more careful about similar statements going forward.

That might not be such a bad thing. The truth of the matter is that many bloggers are de facto journalists. They’re making and breaking the news, and in some industries, such as technology, they are arguably trusted more than traditional media outlets.

But the privileges of being a journalist come with responsibility, and perhaps this whole iPhone fiasco will help emphasize the responsibility part.

Photo credit: Yutaka Tsutano via Flickr.

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