May 03, 2004

Biting The Hand That Feeds Him?

by Jeremy Blachman

Howard Bashman's site is great, although I admit I mostly check it to find inspiration for posts when I'm feeling inspirationless. And this isn't meant as criticism, because I'm a big fan of Howard's and think he provides an awesome service -- but a bit of a headscratcher today. His new 20 Questions went up today, but he later posted this semi-apology for it:

Underwhelmed by this month's installment of "20 questions for the appellate judge": Several readers have expressed their disappointment... When I first reviewed the answers, I too was disappointed by how terse so many of the answers were... One less than fulfilling interview in sixteen months is not a bad batting average, although it is worse than I would have preferred.

I read the post before the 20 Questions, and the 20 Answers aren't the best he's had and some of them are pretty terse, but it strikes me as a bit uncharitable to say so. If I were Judge Teitelman, I'm pretty sure I'd be annoyed I even bothered.

But this is all to lead to a broader point, that's not about Howard Bashman: this is a weird medium we play in. There's no safeguards against emotion. We type, we click, and it's there for the world. Sure, you can delete stuff later, when you realize you crossed a line, or you regret what you said, but people have seen it. It's out there. It's scary sometimes.

May 3, 2004 10:56 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Regarding your observation, "I read the post before the 20 Questions, and the 20 Answers aren't the best he's had and some of them are pretty terse, but it strikes me as a bit uncharitable to say so. If I were Judge Teitelman, I'm pretty sure I'd be annoyed I even bothered."

A more interesting question might be, "If Judge Teitelman was going to be so uncharitable in his responses, why did the Judge even bother going through the motions of participation?"

Some of Bashman's 20 Q&A's have been awesome, I think the Posner interview was one of my personal faves (if I'm remembering the correct Judge, he's a cat owner/fan and a bit eccentric). The Judges who don't have the time or inclination to be generous, candid, and interesting with their responses shouldn't waste Mr. Bashman's time, nor theirs, nor the readers'.

On a related note, I've noticed there's been a fair amount of I'm-not-really-picking-on-Howard-Bashman-but-I-will-sorta'-kinda', to be fair not solely (nor necessarily) here. I sort of understand why -- there's maybe something a little suspect about a guy who's supposedly an active and successful attorney and yet maintains this amazingly up-to-the-minute news website. But so what? Maybe he has help, maybe he's very fast and has it down to an (automated) science.

Frankly, and (ironically) this is intended as no smear whatsover (cross my heart), I see Mr. Bashman's site on the same spectrum (though at the opposite end) of where I'd place a site like the Drudge Report. Drudge is also fast, timely, and interesting with his links to news items -- but unlike Bashman, Drudge explicity and frequently tends towards the sensational, the hyped, the particularly questionable and perhaps over-spun news items. In short, the Drudge Report is a sort of Internet (trashy) tabloid with not-so-subtle right-wing leaning hiccups, while the Appellate Blog is a sort of respectable and generally more trustworthy version of the same thing -- though it links to substantially more, uhm, what's the word... 'reputable' (?) news items (minus the bias hiccups, or perhaps whatever its political leaning, it is simply -- usually -- more subtle).

To fritter away idle time, stimulate my mind as I wake up in the morning, procrastinate my myriad projects and tasks, and stay up-to-date on the news, I enjoy and appreciate both -- though not always in the same measure.

Posted by: JustAPost at May 4, 2004 12:07 AM

I think you're right, Jeremy. Howard probably shouldn't have written a post about it. If I were a 20 questions prospect, I'd suddenly feel quite pressured to amuse Howard and his readers.

Posted by: Nick Morgan at May 4, 2004 12:13 AM

It did seem a bit much to me.

Posted by: Chris Geidner at May 4, 2004 01:12 AM

Howard isn't perfect but he's close.

As to what we say and do on the Internet at blogs, at least very few trees have to be cut down in support. But consider the First Amendment (speech) opportunities. The days of the soapbox on Boston Common are long gone. We must of course separate the wheat from the chaff. That is our task. Otherwise voiceless people now have an opportunity for their say. Letters to editors are not that effective. The Internet can be egalitarian. Is there anything wrong with that?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at May 4, 2004 08:06 AM

Nick wrote: If I were a 20 questions prospect, I'd suddenly feel quite pressured to amuse Howard and his readers.

Somehow, I think a prospective interviewee should feel pressured to provide answers better than "I enjoy the opportunity to serve the court" and "I have no favorite cases or opinions; all the cases that we hear are important."

Even when he was asked about disability vis-a-vis the courts, his specialty, Judge Teitelman had mostly nonspecific platitudes to offer: "Knowledge can overcome prejudice.... [W]e must do our best to accommodate the ability of citizens to perform, when possible, their constitutional duties to serve as jurors."

As I was reading the interview, I really wondered if it wasn't written by a law clerk. That would help explain the seeming unwillingness to answer the questions as posed or take a position on anything. I'm glad Howard posted the explanation he did, which seems to answer this question in the negative.

Posted by: Alan Robinson at May 4, 2004 09:55 AM

One factor in play could be that Judge Teitelman is a publicly elected figure, unlike the federal judges with life tenure that Bashman has interviewed in the past. In my experience federal judges are, generally speaking, less shy about speaking publicly about their personal views than state appellate judges.

There are plenty of counter-examples to that, I know, but that's why I say "generally speaking".

Posted by: UCL at May 4, 2004 11:08 AM

One of the Judge's suggestions with respect to oral arguments is to "[l]isten to the questions from the bench and answer them as directly as you can."

He does at least appear to be following his own advice when answering the question in the interview.

I must say, though: Trying to get any information from this guy, even relating to his hobbies, is like pulling teeth. I especially enjoyed the way the interview ended. "I like music and sports." I kind of wish he added "May I go now?"

Posted by: Sean S at May 4, 2004 01:09 PM

Right on point. Think about next time he appears in front of that Judge. . . .

Posted by: Balasubramani at May 4, 2004 01:57 PM

UCL: I agree with your point generally about elected vs. appointed judges (although being elected did not stop Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Kay Cobb from providing full and very interesting answers to Howards questions). But that would be on point here if Howard had sought out Judge Teitelman to interview him. It is a very odd thing to volunteer to be interviewed, and then provide answers so terse as to verge on evasive ("I have no favorite opinions or cases" is close to this line).

However, on rereading Howard's pseudo-apology, I can see how people would find it impolitic for him to declare himself "[u]nderwhelmed," "disappointed," and "dissatisfied with the amount of effort or interest that [the] answers seemed to reflect." He may have been better off sticking to "Several readers have written to say ...". Still, I can excuse his feeling a little insulted when I think of his taking time out of his doubtless busy schedule to research particularized questions for a judge who volunteers to answer them and then does so in the most marginal way possible.

Posted by: Alan Robinson at May 4, 2004 04:06 PM

Ok, I'll say it:

Howard is arrogant - this is just further evidence. He thinks he deserves great interview answers, and has no problem insulting judges who don't provide them. It is sad that Howard seems to think he is higher on the legal food chain than an appellate jurist.

Posted by: Scott at May 4, 2004 07:56 PM

Bashman is a putz. Anyone want to pitch in to hire the guys who kicked Souter's ass to pay little Howie a visit?

Posted by: Earl at May 4, 2004 09:58 PM

I had the same thoughts as Jeremy expressed -- the post seemed a bit over the line.

Not that I wasn't a bit put off by the Judge's terse responses -- so terse as to almost be comical at points -- but still...

Posted by: Mr. Poon at May 5, 2004 12:36 AM

Bashman is an egotistical jerk. First off, his questions were completely inane -- "do you like being called judge or justice" is simply not worthy of reply. Second, the judges are doing Bashman a favor, not the other way around.

Bashman's blog is written to help Bashman and Bashman alone. It's the reason he has any type of profile or name as a litigator (he's good, but not as good as he likes to think). It's the reason he could launch his own firm. He puts effort into it because it helps him, and nobody owes him anything for the work he does on it.

He owes the judge and apology.

Posted by: That One Guy at May 5, 2004 10:44 AM

[ Tue May 04, 08:54:42 PM | gt bear | edit ]
howard's 20 questions for judge tietleman of the missouri supreme court have stirred up a little controversy. i think the judge was appropriately concise, responsibly evasive.
unlike federal judges, he's up for re-election this fall. candidates for judicial office, even post MN GOP v. White, are limited in what they can say.
The dirty little secret of the 'missouri plan' is that no one ever loses a judicial retention election. they are as safe a congresscritter in a gerryrigged district.
the other aspect is that he doesn't want to pull a scalia and 'duck' the issue ala newdow.
disclaimer: i was an intern on that court, before his time. basicly a clerk for the clerk. more recently i have run for judge and lost (but with record high vote total for my party in that county.) disclaimer: as i may have mentioned, i litigate about disclaimers.
howard's comments seemed fair and balanced.

Posted by: arbitraryaardvark at May 5, 2004 12:10 PM

Bashman's blog is written to help Bashman and Bashman alone.

Um, let's just say nothing could be further from the truth. While benefits certainly have accrued to Howard due to the success of his venture, the benefits received by others have been extraordinary as well.

On a personal level, his site encouraged me to begin blogging. Also, Howard has been very supportive of the entire En Banc/De Novo group since UH brought us together. He has sent me personal e-mails alerting me to developments in LGBT legal issues. There's no benefit to Bashman there; he knows he's the source anyway, so he'd be getting the links from us no matter what.

Bottom line: Yes, calling the judge to the carpet was a bit much, but that doesn't mean the man wasn't well-intentioned. Perhaps he did think the questions were answered by a clerk, and that's why he publicly announced his disappointment with the answers. Maybe he wanted to let others knows that he's doing this so that he and others can learn about the minds of appellate judges -- and one-line answers don't usually do that.

Posted by: Chris Geidner at May 5, 2004 12:22 PM

With all due respect to Bashman, I view his blog as primarily a marketing tool, i.e., used primarily for self-promotion and personal gain. And so what? What's the big deal? I'm a strong believer in capitalism, and marketing is an integral part of succeeding in a capitalistic society. I say: more power to him.

The only time this fact raises any eyebrows is when someone suggests that he's doing it for the "betterment of society" or some other sappy reason. His saving grace on that point is that he's not the one making that claim. (At least I hope not).

Posted by: UCL at May 5, 2004 03:55 PM

I can't believe no one's mentioned this yet as possible reason for why the responses are so shot: the judge is legally blind.

This means he probably had to have the questions read out loud to him by a clerk or some computer software. He then either had to have a clerk type the responses, or entered them himself via voice recognition or braile keyboard. Proofreading and corrections would repeat the above process. I don't know, but I'm guessing this takes a lot longer than reading and writing email by sighted people (like myself).

Posted by: falconred at May 5, 2004 07:01 PM

With all due respect to Bashman, I view his blog as primarily a marketing tool, i.e., used primarily for self-promotion and personal gain. And so what? What's the big deal? I'm a strong believer in capitalism, and marketing is an integral part of succeeding in a capitalistic society. I say: more power to him.

The only time this fact raises any eyebrows is when someone suggests that he's doing it for the "betterment of society" or some other sappy reason. His saving grace on that point is that he's not the one making that claim. (At least I hope not).

Exactly.

Posted by: Brian at May 6, 2004 09:54 AM

Falconred makes an excellent point also. I wonder if the interview would have been more interesting if Bashman had conducted it over the telephone.

Posted by: UCL at May 6, 2004 11:26 AM
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