When truth survives free speech

David Carr writes: Last week, a story came across my desk that seemed to suggest that a blogger had been unfairly nailed with a $2.5 million defamation award after a judge refused to give her standing as a journalist. A businessman who was the target of the blogger’s inquiries brought the suit.

I went to work on a blog post, filled with filial umbrage, saddened that the Man once again had used a boot heel to crush truth and free speech. But after doing a little reporting, I began to think that what scanned as an example of a rich businessman using the power of the courts to silence his critic was actually something else: a case of a blogger using the Web in unaccountable ways to decimate the reputation of someone who didn’t seem to have it coming.

The ruling on whether she was a journalist in the eyes of the law turned out to be a MacGuffin, a detail that was very much beside the point. She didn’t so much report stories as use blogging, invective and search engine optimization to create an alternative reality. Journalists who initially came to her defense started to back away when they realized they weren’t really in the same business.

On the surface, it seemed that the blogger, Crystal Cox, was doing the people’s work. A blogger and real estate agent in Montana who spent a lot of time fighting with the National Association of Realtors, Ms. Cox took an interest a few years ago in the bankruptcy of Summit Accommodators, an intermediary company in Bend, Ore., that held cash to complete property exchanges. The company went belly up and Federal prosecutors indicted three senior executives — a fourth pleaded guilty — charging them with conspiring to defraud clients of millions.

Kevin D. Padrick, a lawyer in Oregon, was appointed as trustee in the case after the company entered bankruptcy. Prompted by the postings of someone whom Mr. Padrick was going after to recover assets — the daughter of one of the men who was indicted — Ms. Cox began suggesting in her blog posts that Mr. Padrick had used inside information and illegal measures to take control of the remaining assets and enrich himself.

In a long-running series of hyperbolic posts, she wrote that Mr. Padrick and his company, the Obsidian Finance Group, had engaged in bribery, tax fraud, money laundering, payoffs and theft, among other things. Her one-woman barrage did not alter the resolution of the Summit affair, but it was effective in ruining Mr. Padrick.

In a phone interview, he told me his business as a financial adviser had dropped by half since Ms. Cox started in on him, and any search of his name or his company turned up page after page on Google detailing his supposed skullduggery, showing up under a variety of sites, including Bend Oregon News, Bankruptcy Corruption, and Northwest Tribune.

As it turned out, all of the allegations and almost all of the coverage in the case were coming from Ms. Cox, who churned URL’s and cut-and-pasted documents to portray Mr. Padrick as a “thug,” and a “thief” who “committed tax fraud” and who may have “hired a hit man” to kill her while engaging in “illegal and fraudulent activity.”

Here’s the problem. None of that was ever proved, nor was it picked up by other mainstream media outlets.

Even a broken clock is right twice a day, but there is nothing in Mr. Padrick’s professional history or the public record that I found to suggest he is any of those things. He was appointed as a trustee by the court, he was subjected to an F.B.I. background check, and there have been no criminal investigations into his conduct. About 85 percent of the funds have been returned to the creditors, which seems to be a good result.

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