When Carl Johnson began his Magazzu Watch website several years ago, the Millville resident’s goal was to act as a watchdog — not on a county, exactly, not even on a town, but on a single individual: Cumberland County Freeholder Louis Magazzu.
After years of posts about Magazzu’s public statements and the ins and outs of county governance, Johnson decided to post nude photos of Magazzu, obtained from an unidentified woman, that led to Magazzu’s resignation Tuesday.
“The local news essentially shrugged it off as not being a story,” Johnson said. “So I put it on my website, and then I guess (they) decided it was a story. Now I’ve gotten calls from all over. I’ve gotten calls from Australia.”
Magazzu Watch is one of many smaller, single-focus political websites created during the past decade to shine a light on certain towns, agencies or, in this case, people. These kinds of sites — basically citizen journalism that can keep a steady drumbeat going about local issues, but can also act outside the usual bounds of editorial oversight and ethics — can have an effect on local government.
“The way of communication has changed forever,” said Sharon Schulman, head of external affairs at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and former director of its William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy. “The good part is that people can communicate instantly — and hope that people have fact-checked it. ... The bad part is that there’s no way to get rid of any of it. Anybody can find it at any time. If it’s true, it can come back and inform the public. If it’s not true, a person can be tainted.”
Johnson is a gadfly. Many local towns have a person or a group that always asks pointed questions during council meetings or files records requests to try to gain further access.
But where once they could get the word out only through fliers or newsletters, today they have the Internet. One such local legend was Larry Angel, of Mullica Township — who was such a prolific poster on his gadfly01 website that his last post on how to save money on police enforcement was put up less than two hours before he died of a heart attack in 2008.
Angel may have gained his greatest notoriety when he filed a municipal complaint against Gov. Jon S. Corzine for not wearing a seat belt when the State Police-driven SUV he was riding in crashed on the Garden State Parkway — he later withdrew it after Corzine paid the $46 fine — but his greatest impact may have been in the legal sphere.
In 2005, a judge dismissed several defamation lawsuits against Angel by several former Mullica Township officials. Although Angel described people by such names as “The Mullah,” “The Bag Lady” and “The Auto Insurance Fraud Queen of Atlantic County,” Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Carol E. Higbee ruled that his words were in fact protected speech under the First Amendment. None of the complaints had merit, Higbee ruled.
“The whole thing has been an abuse of the court system,” Angel said at the time.
While some local activists have banded together to form mainstream political organizations, such as the Brigantine Taxpayers Association or Concerned Citizens of Margate — both of which have had a direct impact on municipal government — in other cases, organized groups and online political sites have combined to form a new breed of gadfly.
WeLoveVentnor.org was created in 2007, when a number of Ventnor residents — both year-round and seasonal — came together following a contentious City Commission meeting.
“‘We’ve got to meet and see what we can do to shine a spotlight on government,’” We Love Ventnor trustee and secretary Paula DeLuca remembers people saying. “I volunteered my home as a meeting site. I expected 12 people to show up. It was more like 50 to 60. ... We were so lucky at that meeting. We had a website designer, a guy with servers who could house the website. The amount of talent in that room!”
Soon WeLoveVentnor.org had registered as a nonprofit and had about 700 dues-paying members. It filed open public records requests and uploaded public documents online, shining a new spotlight on issues such as the Ventnor Redevelopment Zone and the companies that were buying up property there.
“We were just filling in the gaps in journalism,” DeLuca said. “And those gaps were getting filled by people who were motivated because they had a stake.”
The one real advantage of a website, she said, were the public forums.
“They were pretty accurate,” DeLuca said. “They were an interesting source of tips. ... We’d also get private messages from people, inside people from every branch of city government, people upset with what they were seeing and wanted to share. It got to the point where we already knew what we were looking for when we filed OPRAs (open public records requests). We knew where the smoking gun was going to be.”
Of course, WeLoveVentnor.org dealt with the same situation facing all journalism websites, large and small.
“One thing I noticed, when you’re running a website, is that you’re giving away the product for free,” DeLuca said. “But we had a uniform agreement not to accept any advertising, even though we could have.”
Doing so allowed them to maintain “journalistic independence,” she said, in case an advertiser was appointed to a governmental body such as the Planning or /Zoning boards.
“You don’t want to have someone say, ‘We’ll yank our business’ ad if you don’t kowtow to what we say,’” she said.
Eventually, however, the group was dissolved — partially because a new administration took office in 2008, but also because of the day-to-day grind of monitoring the website.
“I encouraged someone to step forward and learn the ropes of a website,” she said. “I didn’t want to do it. You’re always living life on the edge. The website itself, you’d put up an article once a week, but the forums were a headache. You had to make sure you weren’t getting into libel/slander territory.”
They eventually worked out a system where someone would prove themselves reliable over the course of 10 moderated posts before being allowed to comment unmoderated, she said.
“But it was just a continuous chore,” she added. “I wouldn’t want to be tethered to that. ... You’re always living life on the edge.”
More to come
The traditional website is one thing. The growing popularity of social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+ — in which information, photos and videos are posted by users themselves and shared with “friends” and “followers” near and far — will almost certainly come back to embarrass future politicians and public figures.
“There’s going to be so much more of this out there,” Schulman said. “But the public’s expectations are going to be different. If a (person was) 17 years old and in high school, drinking beer with friends, it’s not likely to cause the same kind of problems. It will become commonplace.”
At the same time, if information is posted online that is not verified or accurate, “It could be malicious or destructive,” she said. “A new form of yellow journalism.”
The photos on Magazzu’s site turned out to be the real deal, of course. But the long reach of the Internet can be measured by the impact of Johnson’s one-man website.
“If you take a look at the site,” said Schulman of Magazzu Watch’s earlier posts, “it was visited by a minimum amount of people. It more gets out by word of mouth. But if someone were to do a search for ‘Louis Magazzu,’ the site comes up — and it comes up quickly. It’s one of the first things you see.”
As of Thursday, however, Schulman turned out to be slightly wrong in one sense. By then, Magazzu Watch was the very first result that came up.
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