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Are bloggers journalists? Do they deserve press protections?

An Apple lawsuit against the operators of fan websites stirs debate on whether bloggers can claim legal protections.

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In the small universe of powerful bloggers, Joshua Micah Marshall and John Hinderaker are separated by 900 miles and an even wider political divide. Mr. Marshall leans to the left from Washington D.C., while Mr. Hinderaker, a Minneapolis attorney, sits firmly in the conservative camp. But the two men do share something in common: No one is really sure what to think of them.

Are they journalists with an obligation to check facts, run corrections, and disclose conflicts of interest? Or are they ordinary opinion-slingers, like barbers or bartenders, with no special responsibilities - or rights?

Even in a country where most citizens probably have no idea what a blog is, it's not just an academic debate. Bloggers, some observers say, are becoming major players in everything from national politics to consumer trends. As a result, "their conflicts, motives, and agendas matter enormously," says Zephyr Teachout, who served as Internet director for the Howard Dean campaign.

Now in California, a court will soon decide whether bloggers have the same legal protections as journalists under "shield" laws that protect reporters from revealing their sources. Among Apple's targets is a 19-year-old blogger who twice recently leaked information about new company products weeks before Apple unveiled the products themselves.

If anything, the lawsuit furthers the reality that it only takes a bit of Web savvy and few dollars to wield enormous influence. Consider the Power Line blog, cofounded by Hinderaker. Last year, it helped set off the mass debunking of CBS's supposed memos about President Bush's National Guard service. Marshall's Talking Points Memo site, meanwhile, is a must-read among the Democratic elite.

While it doesn't cost Hinderaker and Marshall much money to maintain their sites, their claimed daily readership - 50,000 for Power Line, nearly 100,000 for Talking Points Memo - is larger than the paid circulation of all but about 75 American newspapers. There are countless other political blogs, too, with many boasting fans among congressmen and journalists, not to mention radio talk-show hosts.

Political blogs tend to share the same format: bloggers post several messages each day to a Web page, ranging from comments about current events to links to news stories. Depending on the blog, readers can respond by posting their own messages on the site.

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