A reporting lifetime ago, I was part of the often intense coverage of the similar Nancy Cruzan and Christine Busalacchi cases in Missouri. But they played out on a different media stage than the Schiavo case with its wall-to-wall cable coverage and relentless attention online. News organizations were still the primary gatekeepers — and if people wanted to get their message out, it went through us or usually went unheard.
Today, it’s the opposite — anyone who has something to say has access to a digital printing press and a shot at being read. True, the noise-to-quality ratio is high, and the amount of misinformation masquerading as fact can be scary. But the opening in the gates also makes way for those with something significant to add.
Take Florida law blog AbstractAppeal, where appellate lawyer Matt Conigliaro combines passion for the law and a talent for explaining points like hearsay or case law for feeding tubes. Once it turned up on my radar, it quickly became invaluable, an oasis in the frenzied coverage and polarizing posts; as soon as a ruling came in or a new legal issue was raised, I clicked right in. I spend more time with his resource page than those at news sites.
When Conigliaro started Abstract Appeal, billed as “the first Web log devoted to Florida Law & The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals,” in 2003, he thought he’d be writing primarily for other Florida lawyers. But Conigliaro wound up in the eye of a category five legal hurricane — the battle over Terri Schiavo. The combination turned him outward, to a lawyer explaining the law in language it doesn’t take a law degree to understand.
While other bloggers following the case tend to side either with husband Michael Schiavo or parents Robert and Mary Schindler, Conigliaro stuck with his initial focus — Florida and appellate law — and, in the process, created a port in the storm for those seeking a coherent, comprehensive understanding of the legal issues without a bias toward either family. Conigliaro’s primary bias, freely admitted, is toward the law. He came up for air long enough for a conversation about that bias, media coverage and the definition of a “citizen” journalist. The following is an edited transcript of our discussion.
Online Journalism Review: You have devoted an enormous amount of personal resources to doing this. Why are you so compelled to do it and what kind of role do you think you’re playing?
Matt Conigliaro: It’s, I guess, a fairly easy answer. I started this weblog regarding Florida law. I’m an appellate attorney, so that’s what I do, follow case law for a living so it does merge pretty well with what I do for a living. When this case started to become news I had done relatively few postings on it, other than to just sort of comment on what was going on but didn’t really try to be very insightful. What made me try to be more detailed — I ended up creating that information page; I literally did it overnight — I was in the middle of a trial … and I happened to catch a radio show as I was traveling from spot to spot that had the host just screaming about what the case was about, and I knew much of what the host was saying just wasn’t true. I knew from reading the appellate proceedings in the case that’s not what happened. I was somewhat fed up, and I ended up going home that night, didn’t sleep and stayed up all night to write that page.
It was really done as a way of trying to give people that were curious some basic explanation of the procedures, because as I first heard it, “Well the husband wants her dead so the Florida courts have just listened to him.” That’s not what happened at all. “She’s not really in a vegetative state; she’s talking and walking and thinking and communicating.” The court decisions were exactly to the contrary. There had been a whole trial on what she wanted. The decision was not made by the husband; it was made by the court based on what everybody said about her, her life, her wishes. The representations about it being a decision by the husband were just wrong, and they were inflammatory, too. The statements about her not being in a vegetative state, well, you can still debate that and apparently people still are — there had been a whole trial on the issue. The court had heard from experts on both sides, heard from an independent court-appointed expert and reached a decision. My original goal was just to get that kind of information out there so that if people were curious there’d be somewhere to go. Also, as I started to get e-mails on it I could refer people to the page.
OJR: You started out by doing little posts that would say so-and-so had a column, so-and-so has a story, and then you had this shift and you started to become the explainer.
MC: Because nobody else was. At some point it didn’t do much good to just keep referring people to articles because stories didn’t do a good job of explaining what’s going on. And stories are written by reporters, who generally aren’t lawyers. It’s no slight against them; they get their information by usually talking to lawyers, people involved in the case, people who often make for good quotes and certainly give you their client’s spin on whatever’s going on, but it doesn’t necessarily make for an objective look at what’s happened.
OJR: It becomes very “he said, she said” and doesn’t get to go very deep, does it?
MC: It’s very troubling to people because they end up being very misled. And if a reporter makes a mistake, then everybody who reads the story or hears the report gets misled. What eventually happened is I started to appreciate just how much misinformation was out there and how much people had questions that media never answered. I started trying to answer.
OJR: Was this the responsibility of local media? Did they miss out on this?
MC: To a great extent, yes, I think so. Although far more, I think it was both a missed opportunity and a bit of a train wreck for the national media because the local media has had this case around for 7 years; at least since 2002, this has been a big deal in Central Florida. Everybody has heard about this case here for years. The local media pretty much figured out the basics of what was going on years ago, and they were being fairly reliable in their reporting in the sense they didn’t get things wrong very often. Sometimes — but not very often. What they didn’t do was give much insight into what was happening and what the law was. The stories mostly consisted of some quotes by one side and some quotes by the other side, which leaves the average person clueless about what the law is.
It’s understandable a reporter who’s not trained in legal matters might not want to be writing stories that firmly declare what the law is, they’d rather quote a professor who says something. They just don’t feel they have the ability or the standing to be declaring what the law is — and maybe that’s appropriate. On the local level, it left a pretty big hole in the coverage. On the national level … I used the term train wreck and I mean it. The misinformation from the national media right through today is still appalling.
OJR: What kinds of perceptions of yours have changed – or have any — about the way the public approaches information and news?
MC: I’m not sure anything has changed. I think I’ve learned a lot, though.
OJR: What have you learned?
MC: I’ve learned that there is just a broad cross-section of people out there who have different levels of interest in the law. I have been pleasantly amazed at the number of people who have contacted me who are genuinely interested in learning what the law says on these different issues and understanding why it says that and how it works. At the same time, there are people who have also contacted me that don’t care at all about the law, don’t want to know what it says, don’t want to understand it; instead, they simply want to blame people for results – like the judge.
This case cut almost no new legal ground in Florida law. To a lot of people this was new and that this could happen was news to them, but, in terms of the law, if you look at the decisions in this case, there’s almost nothing new that’s come out of it. The basic framework of what happened here was already the law. A lot of folks out there don’t want to hear that, they don’t want to know the judge followed the law … they just want to blame the judge and say he’s corrupt, power hungry and other derogatory terms they want to throw at him.
OJR: What have you learned about the media? Anything that surprised you?
MC: Generally. I’ve been unfortunately disappointed. I think there are a lot of well-meaning reporters out there and well-meaning hosts who just don’t have the time to learn what’s involved in a case like this or the law that surrounds a case like this. Maybe the people who prepare them are just doing a poor job but, in the end, the country has heard very loudly from a number of people who just didn’t know the facts of the case, who just didn’t know the law when they talked about it. They talked about things being true, being factual, that were just incorrect.
OJR: Back in the days of Cruzan and Busalacchi, you had the usual parties, you had the media, but you didn’t have a way to hear from people like you. How much does this ability you have change things?
MC: I don’t know. At times, it spooked me because I was concerned if I said something on the e-mail or posted something on the blog that it might make it to the parties in the case …or make it to a judge. Part of what has kept me restrained me from wanting to speak about issues before they were decided was I didn’t want to be accused of having that kind of influence. … I didn’t want to be telling either side what they should be arguing or suggesting who was wrong. I didn’t want to have that kind of role. I just wanted people to understand the issues.
OJR: But 10 years ago you’d have been reduced to writing letters to the editor or an op-ed piece. You’ve been able to build a body of work that anybody who goes online and search certain things can end up looking at. You have become a significant resource in a case that before you would have just listened on the radio, said what an idiot and driven home. That ability to go home and actually do something with this, how significant a change is that in the way the law can be covered?
MC: Good question. It’s hard for me to answer because I’m on the wrong side of it. I would think it’s a positive development, and I would hope that will happen in the future is that more people who are responsible for covering this types of events will consider using these sorts of sites as potential resources. Now, the trouble is how do you distinguish between good resources and bad resources? That’s hard to say. That’s a credibility issue. I think in the end that’s going to be the real trouble. …
MC: That was kind of me, believe me. The person who runs that site has maligned the judiciary in Florida more than is imaginable.
OJR: But they had the information you thought people should read. … At the same time, they have a very one-sided view of what they think is right and wrong.
MC: Unfortunately, they also have a very mistaken view of what the law is. It’s one thing to say this is my opinion that this is right or wrong. It’s another thing to say something is illegal and unlawful when it isn’t.
OJR: Are they sort of the antithesis of your site?
MC: (laughs) I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that one enough. I won’t say yes or no. But they are very different. They have an aim, that’s fairly clear. The aim doesn’t bother me. I’m not so troubled that someone has an agenda. Lots of folks have agendas. At some point, it’s hard to find someone that doesn’t. What does bother me is they make representations about factual things and I’m including the law here as a set of facts. It would be like if someone had a Web site that said there is no such thing as freedom of speech. It’s just wrong as a fact. Those kinds of things are what you find on these sites – this happened and that’s clearly unlawful and because it was allowed to happen everyone involved is corrupt.
OJR: How has your traffic changed?
MC: I started this in the middle of 2003. Within six months, it had managed to build up to a couple of hundred people a day; after a year, year-and-a-half, that had grown to maybe a few hundred people a day — and I really don’t know who they are. I know it’s lawyers, some media, some ordinary folks who have time on their hands. Then, at the end of February, when the order came out saying when Terri’s feeding tube would be removed – it spiked at a thousand, couple of thousand a day. As the publicity started in March it kept spiking. Last week, it was 55-60,000 per day. I expect it’s going to go back down to a more nominal level although hopefully some people who started reading it will keep reading it.
The e-mail has been rewarding, as much as it has been disturbing to get some very antagonistic e-mails from people who accuse me of all sorts of bad things. It’s been really rewarding to get as many positive ones as I have.
OJR: I noticed you don’t have comments on.
MC: Thank God. I cannot imagine what kind of disaster it would have been had I had comments up with 50-60,000 people a day coming by to see things. I’m not sure the site would have survived it. That was a decision I made very early on to go with something that didn’t have comments. Now Blogger offers comments, but I don’t use them. It’s completely intentional. To me, comments are very distracting. There are enough forums out there for people to post their comments. I thought all it would do would be to detract from what I said. It’s time consuming, too. If you have comments you’ve got to watch them. There’s a certain editorial responsibility that comes, I think, when you have those because people assume if you leave them up they can’t be too crazy or you’d say something about them, do something about them.
OJR: It’s enabled you to keep some equilibrium when it comes to atmosphere on the site.
MC: I hope so. Part of the goal was I wanted it to have the tone I set — not the tone some other people might inject.
OJR: Would you like other lawyers, other experts to know they can contribute this way?
MC: I think it would be great if others contributed this way, I think it’s inevitable too, maybe not as common as you’d like to see it. … If there was another Schiavo case next month I think I’d collapse. I’m personally lucky that I don’t have kids and work three blocks from where I live.
If more people would do it would be good. The danger that I have seen come from this — I have learned how much the public at large does not know about the legal system, even some of the most basic principles are fairly foreign to a lot of the public, and one of them is the notion of finality, that cases come to an end, that when a trial is held, an appeal is concluded, there are very few ways to try to undo that judgment and start over. The other thing is not so much a principle as an observation — it’s almost impossible to judge a trial that you weren’t there to see, whether it’s a jury or a judge making the final decision, they make those findings based on body language, tone of voice, all sorts of strange things that you’ll get when you’re there that you’ll never see later.
OJR: Other lawyers are trying this as publicity for their firms. You don’t seem to be.
MC: I never have been. I do appellate work; I particularly do big appellate work with big companies, and the people who make those decisions about who to hire aren’t surfing the web for anybody they can find through a blog. If you’re the kind of lawyer who gets your business from the street … there’s something to be gained from doing this.
OJR: What have you gained from this?
MC: I’ve just gained some satisfaction that I’m filling a gap, which is to help give people a resource on the law so people who want that resource can find it somewhere. Most of the time there aren’t these big cases like Schiavo. Most of the time I’m discussing cases that are really only of interest to lawyers. What I try to do is describe them in ways that to a certain extent people who aren’t so educated can understand. …
OJR: Have you been following the discussions about citizen journalists, that certain bloggers — not all bloggers because not all bloggers want to be in this realm – are providing a journalistic function as citizens? Personally, I think I’m providing one as a citizen – I’m a citizen and a journalist. But, I mean, in the sense that you feel you are reporting and serving a function journalists traditionally serve.
MC: That’s a real mixed bag – be careful how strong you hold me to this so it doesn’t sound like the product of great thought — it is mixed because there are competing priorities, and, I think, competing interests. For instance, the local newspaper is usually in business to make money and does want to follow stories that attract attention and may have an interest in sensationalizing. It needs to speak at a fairly low level because in the end that’s the reader base for most publications. It’s not always true. But there’s a set of interests and values that go with that whereas someone sitting in my position, I don’t really care to a certain extent about keeping readers or making people happy. I’m writing things that interest me because they interest me, not because I think they’re going to interest the people who might read it. At the same time, I have no financial interest in it. I don’t have ads on the site.
OJR: A lot of journalists don’t have a financial interest.
MC: No, but a lot of editors do.
OJR: But in the purest sense, that you’re taking information, analyzing, getting information and pulling it together …
MC: There’s definitely a component of journalism in this, I think that’s very fair to say. It may not share all of the aspects of journalism that some people think are essential to being a journalist. For instance, objectivity is probably a hallmark of journalism.
OJR: In some cases.
MC: Objectivity in the absence of a stated bias … Here, in my personal case, I tend to be very objective because there aren’t too many things I really care about other than the institutional credibility of the legal system. One of the hardest things for people to believe is that I really don’t have an opinion on all this stuff. It’s mind-boggling to a lot of people that somebody could not really care. You don’t want to say you don’t care in the sense that you’re cold and harsh, but it’s legal training that leads me to that point of view. Judges, appellate judges, can’t be consumed with trying to figure out if every criminal defendant was really guilty or not; they just sit back and look at the case and decide was due process followed, was there error in the trial. You learn to be detached from the more emotional components.