[Attention conservation notice: update 4 is actually the best place to start reading this entry.]
The mainstream print and broadcast media in this country is a noisome tangle of weasels, vipers and scum, with a supporting cast of rightwing lickspittles, fascist apologists and barking nutbags, so it was with no surprise that I read about pundit Armstrong Williams taking $240K in payola from the Bush administration to plug their disastrous “No Child Left Behind” program. My first thought, in fact, was that Williams was just the tip of an iceberg, something Williams himself indicated.
Nonetheless, I was still surprised and disappointed to read Zephyr Teachout’s frank admission 1 that the Dean campaign paid prominent progressive bloggers Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong as consultants “largely in order to ensure that they said positive things about Dean”. There are numerous mitigating factors — you can read all about them here and here. I’m not saying these guys rank with the ambulatory sacks of shit I listed above, or even with the dishonest and deceitful Williams (and neither, despite their whining, is Teachout). Kos had a disclosure notice up, and Armstrong was apparently on blog hiatus while under contract to Dean. Their own injured egos notwithstanding, it’s not about Kos and Armstrong. Now that I know about the contracts, I’m not going to stop reading Kos (I never have read Armstrong). I consider his disclosure inadequate but I don’t think he was bought — for one thing, his politics are pretty similar to Dean’s. Also, he has established a record of integrity which cushions him, in my view, from this lapse in judgement1.
But that record, and my willingness to cut Kos slack on account of it, is the crux of the real question here: blogs are moving up in the media world, and it’s important to ask, what kind of culture or system do we want to establish? The potential for corruption is obvious, and if bloggers want to retain the trust they now have (due in some part simply to being seen as “anti-establishment”) then they’d better take all conflicts of interest, real and potential, seriously. There are a lot of comments in the threads I linked to the effect that bloggers can’t/shouldn’t be held to press standards, and Kos makes this argument himself. It’s horseshit. Kos, for instance, wouldn’t have got the consulting gig if he hadn’t held himself out to be a pundit. The audience and the trust of that audience is part of what potential clients are buying.
The primary issue here is transparency, and b!X has got it right: drawing on journalistic ethics and Rebecca Blood‘s guidelines for weblog ethics, he lists a set of key principles to which readers can expect him to adhere. He has never been paid as a consultant, but he has taken advertising monies, about which he says:
My standard practice during the election was to include a disclosure statement in every post about those races that I accepted ads from candidates in that race. That sort of behavior needs to become the absolutely baseline below which bloggers will not sink — at least those bloggers who want credibility.
And there you have the bottom line: credibility. Standards. Teachout is looking to start an important discussion, not a slanging match. I hope the progressive blog community will step up. If blogs are going to run with the big dogs, they’d better learn to piss in the long grass.
Update: Somehow Atrios, who thought this was a good idea, is inexplicably all sneer when it comes to the idea of ethics in blogging. I wonder if it has something to do with upstart Teachout criticizing poor defenceless Kos. I don’t know who these “people” are who Atrios claims “think ‘blogger ethics rules’ will create clear bright lines to avoid controversies”; I think he made them up. I also think that standards are going to be imposed on blogs as their political influence and usefulness grows, and if bloggers who want to be taken seriously don’t take the lead on this issue, that lack of forward thinking is going to bite them in the ass. Atrios and Jesse and co. can bury their heads in the “self-policing community” and “rules are for assholes” sand all they want, but if news and views online is ever going to get beyond the Wild West stage it’s going to need ethical guidelines of some sort. Hell, maybe it’s best for all concerned if blogs remain a maverick medium, but let’s at least have the conversation.
Update the second: if this topic is of interest to you, you’ll want to read Lisa Williams’ excellent entry on blog policies.
Update the third: two of the most popular ways to blame Teachout for everything bad that ever happened appear to be as follows. First, Teachout must have known the rightwing media would grab hold of her comments and use them to cloud the Armstrong Williams issue, she shouldn’t have said anything, she must be working for the GOP, waaaaaah. For instance:
Here we are in the midst of a huge ethical scandal in the right wing noise machine, and out marches Zephyr Teachout, goddess of the left blogosphere, with a salvo virtually designed to provide the SCLM with one of their patented false equivalence arguments. And, lucky for us, it serves to marginalize the left blogosphere at the very moment that the righties are being feted like princes in the salons of the Mighty Wurlitzer as right wing heroes! What excellent timing.
Note to left wing bloggers: if you’re so terrified of the Big Bad Right Wing Media Circus that you expect others preemptively to do your cringing for you, I suggest you need a new hobby. If you’re accusing Teachout of sabotage, you need a little something called evidence.
Second, who needs an empty formality like a code of ethics? Here’s Digby again:
The larger question of blogger ethics in and of itself is a red herring. It’s suddenly a “concern” of the [so-called Liberal Media] and by extension the halls of academe, because they are taking heat from us — and people are listening — and they don’t like it. Sadly, the only bloggers who are going to be restrained by these concerns are on the left. The right wing bloggers are now a fully accepted part of the Right Wing Noise Machine — positioned in the dumb mainstream media’s collective lizard brain as fearless wild west mavericks defying the establishment. Their “ethics” are the same as any other right wing media — non-existent.
So the left blogosphere will be the focus of this crusade for online ethics. We don’t have institutions like the Claremont Institute who can hire us on as “fellows” — and launder Republican money through it to pay us. We aren’t going to get our marching orders and talking points through the coordinated “left wing” media because there is no coordinated left wing media. We are out here on our own, and when or if we say or do something controversial, there is no institutional defense of us because there is no institution. Certainly, we aren’t going to get paid big bucks to be a member of the team.
So fuck a “code of ethics.” It will only serve to marginalize us.
Right, right, ethics schmethics. You hero you. You lonely crusader for Truth and Justice, fighting the good fight out there on your own — how could you possibly benefit from any discussion of proprieties? Second free clue: it’s not about formalizing a code and etching it in a stone somewhere and calling everything good, and that’s such a flimsy straw man you should be embarrassed to tilt at it. Blogs are playing an increasing role in politics and on the media stage, and it would be useful for progressive bloggers to decide among themselves what behaviours, disclosures, financial arrangements etc. are acceptable. A quick example: what’s the best way to disclose financial involvement with someone you’re writing about — mention it the first relevant post? Every relevant post? A link on the front page? Teachout raised that question, but I’ve yet to see anyone but b!X and rebecca blood even try to answer it. Everyone in the game has their own rules for ethical blogging, whether they make them explicit or not; the value of making them explicit is in examining and discussing them and coming to a workable consensus. Again, I don’t mean a shining monument on a hill to be set up and thereafter ignored; I mean an organic set of mores like that which covers things like linking and blogrolling. To return to the disclosure example — “hat tip” and “via” links are now standard, and skipping them is considered bad form, and readers know to look for them in blog entries. I think it would be useful to have a method of disclosing financial arrangements every time they need disclosing that, like “hat tip”, becomes commonplace and doesn’t leave readers casting about for information.
That’s just one obvious example; I’m sure there are plenty more to be had, but we’re not even going to get around to talking about them if sneering assholes insist on casting Teachout as a traitor and themselves as shining paragons of virtue who should simply be trusted to get everything right and set the example for all who follow. Leaving everyone to their own devices in respect of increasingly important and complex ethical questions just because we can’t be bothered to talk about them is not only stupid on its face, it almost guarantees that someone will make a preventable fuckup and hand some serious ammunition to the Wurlitzer.
1Update the fourth: it’s not clear to me that “admission” is the right word, since ZT’s comments don’t square with what other Dean staffers have said. It’s clear that Jerome Armstrong is as clean as a whistle: he was hired because he had begun to build what became the Dean Internet Machine, and he stopped blogging while under contract. Kos’ behaviour is equally clean. Reasonable people can disagree about how much disclosure is enough, but he made perfectly good faith disclosure. In view of my argument that a widely understood set of ethical mores among bloggers is currently lacking and would be a good way to avoid such controversies, I was wrong to use the phrase “lapse in judgement” in describing Kos’ decisions. Most of my point in all of the above is that reasonable people should start disagreeing: individual judgement would be well served by pooling ideas and talking about these sorts of ethical issues.
Let’s have the short version of that: neither Kos nor Jerome Armstrong did anything wrong in respect of their work with the Dean campaign, no matter what you hear to the contrary.
That leaves the question of what exactly Teachout is saying. She asserts that
we paid Markos and Jerome Armstrong as consultants, largely in order to ensure that they said positive things about Dean. We paid them over twice as much as we paid two staffers of similar backgrounds
where “we” means pretty clearly “the Dean campaign”. Well no, “we” didn’t, according to both Mathew Gross, Director of Internet Communications and “Blogger in Chief” for the Dean campaign at the time, and then-campaign manager Joe Trippi (mp3, interview by Dave Winer). Trippi says straight out that the decision to hire Armstrong and Kos was his, and that it had nothing to do with ensuring pro-dean commentary. What gives? I’ve left a comment on Teachout’s entry; it will be interesting to see if she responds to these direct rebuttals.
I want to say more about the larger issue of blog ethics per se (which, unfortunately, seems to have been largely drowned out by the Teachout Controversy), but that can wait for a later post. I’ve also changed the title of this post to better fit the content.