Anonymous blogger gets under skin of Democrats

The Baltimore Sun

An anonymous blogger who claims to be documenting Gov. Martin O'Malley's "broken promises" has clearly gotten the goat of some Democrats.

Since May, www.omalleywatch.com has posted a series of entries critical of O'Malley -- including scoops on allegedly political firings by the governor and questionable aspects of a Queen Anne's County land deal, as well as some in which the details didn't check out. In response, the Democrats lashed out last week with a news release claiming to have proof that the blogger is none other than former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s spokesman, Henry Fawell.

Fawell, now with Ehrlich at the law firm of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, denied the accusation. But omal leywatch.com did so with a little more flair.

"Evidence is mounting that the Maryland Democratic Party (MDP) and the O'Malley administration wet their pants several times a day over the new phenomenon known as omalleywatch.com," the blogger wrote in response to the accusations.

The anonymity of the blogger has captured the attention of Annapolis watchers of both political parties, as speculation about his or her identity has become a favorite parlor game in the capital.

Asked about the blog recently, O'Malley said he was not troubled by it. "The campaign ended for me when the voters of Maryland spoke," he said. But he went on to repeat his party's accusation that Womble Carlyle was involved.

"If that law firm of [Ehrlich's] decides that's how they want to spend their money, I don't think there's anything I can do about that," O'Malley said.

Someone who answered an e-mail to the Web site said the blog began in May out of a belief that O'Malley was getting a free ride.

"The Maryland Republican Party is not doing their job of calling out O'Malley's failures and broken promises," the person wrote. "The media, without hearing a counter-argument, was being soft on O'Malley. We are providing that counterpoint."

The person said he or she is not a government employee but is familiar with Annapolis politics. Contributors to the site want anonymity for fear that Democrats could put pressure on their employers or seek other retribution, the blogger wrote.

"No company wants the governor angry with them," wrote the individual, who declined to provide his or her identity.

For all the back and forth, anonymous political critiques have been the rule, not the exception, in the history of American journalism. Journalism historians say the phenomenon of signing one's real name to a political attack is a relatively new development and one that appears to be waning with the advent of the Internet.

David A. Copeland, a professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, said anonymous journalism was standard practice in Colonial America because of the law of seditious libel that King James I instituted in 1603. Even the passage of the First Amendment nearly 200 years later did little to protect journalists from the charge, which was not completely eradicated until the 1960s, Copeland said.

"The fact is, the pseudonym is back, much in the way it was in the 18th century, via blogs and other on-line writings," Copeland wrote in an e-mail.

Perhaps the most famous case of anonymous political smear was that of James Callender, a journalist at the beginning of the 19th century.

His role was similar to the one Democrats claim omalleywatch is playing for Ehrlich: Callender was employed for a time by Thomas Jefferson to spread accusations against his rival, Alexander Hamilton. Some of them were true, some weren't.

The lack of attribution for the O'Malley criticisms posted on the site has clearly fueled the Democrats' ire -- the words "anonymous" and "secret" appeared repeatedly in the party's news release about the blog. Rather than responding to the attacks on the Web site, the party sought to out the blog as an official Ehrlich mouthpiece.

"Evidence is mounting that former Governor Bob Ehrlich and his new North Carolina law firm's Maryland-based staff are the driving force behind a totally anonymous and controversial smear website," the state Democratic Party said in its news release.

For proof, the Democrats point to an e-mail Fawell sent to a reporter raising questions about a Queen Anne's County land deal about the same time that omalleywatch posted an item containing many of the same points.

But Fawell insists that's not what's going on here.

"I am not omalleywatch, and I don't have a clue who is," Fawell said. "But I do give them credit for scaring the wits out of the Maryland Democratic Party."

The Web site's logo features a green eye in the middle of the "O" on O'Malley's name and covers topics including potential tax increases and "O'Malley & BGE" (the site says the governor failed to follow through on a campaign promise to hold down BGE rate increases). It also allows viewers to pass along tips, sign a petition opposing a gas tax increase and to "report your BG&E; bill."

The blogger appears to be politically connected. The Web site was the first to report that Gregory Maddalone, a former Ehrlich aide, had won an administrative law court case alleging that he had been fired illegally, and it broke the news that Nelson Reichart, the former head of real estate for the Department of General Services, had been fired.

Reichart was dismissed the day after he was quoted in The Sun talking about the Queen Anne's County land deal, which critics said raised potential conflicts of interest about members of the O'Malley administration. Although Reichart told the newspaper that the state often splits the difference between two property appraisals rather than paying a higher amount, as it did in this case, he was a defender of the propriety of the deal, not a critic (as omalleywatch claimed).

Another self-proclaimed scoop is that O'Malley has a secret plan to raise the gas tax by 9 cents a gallon. O'Malley has said he would consider a gas tax increase but has not proposed or endorsed one.

The identity of the omalleywatch blogger isn't the first cyber-mystery in Maryland politics. Two years ago, an anonymous poster to a conservative Web site identified by the screen name "md4bush" helped coax another Web poster -- who turned out to be then-Ehrlich aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. -- to acknowledge spreading rumors about O'Malley's private life.

Ehrlich and his aides tried to unmask md4bush and at one point accused a former Democratic Party official of being the Web poster, though they were never able to prove it.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said this sort of backlash from the political establishment to anonymous speech has become more frequent with the advent of blogging. But the courts, pointing to a lengthy American tradition, have sided with the bloggers.

The Delaware Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that a Smyrna city councilman could not compel an Internet service provider to identify an anonymous blogger who had written critical -- and in some cases, insulting -- posts about him on a Web site.

The court's reasoning, Kirtley said, was that instead of suing, the councilman should have posted a response.

"The remedy for defamatory speech on the Internet is not lawsuits, it is more speech," Kirt- ley said of the court's interpretation. "The answer is, 'Get a blog of your own,' or if the site that defames you is a bulletin board, post your response. Self-help is the name of the game, which I think is disconcerting to a lot of people."

A similar case in Minnesota was dismissed in 2006.

Larry Lorenz, a communications professor at Loyola University of New Orleans, said that although anonymous political speech is part of American tradition, critics lose some of their power to persuade by using the tactic. Providing readers with an author's identity helps them to better understand the context of opinions, Lorenz said, and it shows that the writer has the courage of his or her convictions.

"A lot of people, we find, are very timid," Lorenz said. "They bluster a great deal, but they don't want people to know who's doing the blustering."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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