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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Jewish Avenger vs. The Investigative Reporter: Who is Right?

I thought I would do a debate with myself over the brouhaha between Scott Rothstein and Bob Norman. It reminds me of the Talmudic story of when a rabbinical student thought he caught a Rabbi in a conundrum.

The story goes like this. Student 1 and 2 each approach the Rabbi with a claim they think is correct and ask him to settle the dispute. Student 1 makes his argument and the Rabbi says, “You are right.” The second student makes exactly the opposite claim and the Rabbi says, “You are right.”

Now a third student comes up to the scholar and says: “But Rabbi, you have totally contradicted yourself. Each of the two students gave opposite arguments and yet you said they were both right. This cannot be.”

Alas, the wise Rabbi smiled at the third student, patted him on the head, and said: “See, you are right, too.”

So Scott Rothstein has the quijones to stand up to Bob Norman, who rips anyone at anytime when he thinks they have their hand in the Broward Corruption Stew, a porridge fed upon by many over the years. There are multiple brands, from The Cowan Chowder to The Jenne Jambalaya. The list is too long to list.

Here is the piece:

Scott has an absolute right to do fight back against the same injustice that Norman exposes. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Why should you not be able to defend yourself or another if you think you or that other party is being slandered? Who granted to Bob Norman an exclusive right to write without criticism?

But Scotty, what are you thinking? You are not a Bronx pugilist. How dare you threaten a reporter? You are the name partner of a big macha law firm, with lots of legal credentials, even though Barry Stone is there. And how can you win an argument with a guy who as the journalist gets in the last word? I am guessing a lot of friends called up Bob and said ‘What kind of schmuck is this to go after an investigative journalist?’. It was my first reaction.

After all, Bob Norman has for years been this community’s leading investigative citizen journalist, exposing systemic corruption. If there is dirt, he gets to it. Just like JAABLOG in the courthouse. If someone is bleeding, they get the DNA first. Plus, Bob Norman, even though he is prone to hyperbole (oh, he is going to hate that) has been proven right again and again. Occasionally, he gores your friends or yourself, but it does not matter. The community is served by his writing.

But then Scott says wait a second, you just can’t trespass on someone’s good name without a basis in fact, and if you do, damn, 'I am going to use the resources of my law firm to sue your ass in court, especially if you go after my friends. And because you are going after my friends I am going to go after your wife.' But he sounds like a kid in a sandbox shouting: ‘na na na na na.’ Not exactly graceful. But still, the guy stood up for his buddies. That's what friends do. So I am thinking that a lot of people who have been targets of Bob privately called up Scott and said ‘Way to go. Kick his ass.’

So Scott is right too, because if you libel someone and can prove up the falsehoods were published with a gross recklessness or careless disregard for truth, you may pursue a legal claim justly. You have the right to right the writer who wrongs you.

Bob justifiably retorts that just because Scott is politically connected and well-heeled he will not compromise himself one single iota in exposing shady deals and corrupt leaders, adding 'if you think you can intimidate me into doing so, go shove a frying pan you know where.’ And damn, that is just what he should have said, because Bob is jealously protecting a first amendment right to probe into, and then write about, anything he damn well wants.

But then Scott bitches that Bob says things with his own slant and violates fundamental principles of fairness by driving and digging his targets into the ground with innuendo not fact. But Bob correctly points out 'look, deal with it. There's a free press' and he is entitled to express opinions, and formulate conclusions, without the permission or consent of Mr. Rothstein. And Mr. Norman is absolutely right about that.

So I can’t decide who to congratulate. I suppose that is why I am a wimp on this. Having lived my life in both roles, as a journalist and a lawyer, I am conflicted. I am equivocating. Loudon Wainright would say I am like a dead skunk in the middle of the road. Where you only find yellow lines.

Bob Norman can't let himself be intimitated. That does not mean he cannot be called out on what he writes. All his sources are not unimpeachable. They have their own agenda, just as his stories have their own slant. Sometimes you get it wrong. I am sure he has kicked himself more than once over the years.

I hosted a radio show for ten years. Within five seconds of expressing one thought, some caller shot back live what an idiot I was, and how I might not leave the station alive that morning. I had to deal with it on the spot. The essence of a free society is to express not only the opinions you support but the ones you oppose. We did not create the first amendment just for people to agree with us. Besides, callers who agree all the time can be boring. Better you get called out to defend yourself.

So to the Scott Rothsteins of the world, if you feel legally wronged, sue- that is what you do best. Don't take crap from journalists who lie, but damn you better prove up that lie. And to the Bob Normans of the world who feel passionate about their prose- write it, that is what you do best, and that is what our society needs most. Don't take crap from lawyers who threaten you.

Maybe Fidel Castro could open his speeches with the line "I think I can say without fear of contradiction...." Well you can't in America. Even if you are the President you can get heckled by a Congressman. And if you are the President, you more than anyone else should be able to stand the heckling.

So Scott and Bob, they can’t both be right, can they?

Let me ask my Rabbi.

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