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December 9, 2004
What Are The Ethics Of Disclosure In The Blogosphere?

The CBS report on the payments from the John Thune campaign to the blogs Dasche Vs Thune and South Dakota Politics has the blogosphere debating what disclosure blogs owe their readers. It's a great debate, and one that should have taken place long ago. Pat from Brainster's Blog wrote:

Well, I, for one, am disgusted with Lauck (I never read Van Beek's blog). He owed it to his readers to disclose the fact that he was receiving substantial amounts of money from Thune. And, for the record, our blog received nothing; we did it because we believed in John Thune and despised Tom Daschle.

Jon at QandO also feels used by the two bloggers:

To put this in perspective: recall that Daschle V Thune spent a great deal of time--and got a great of attention--by ridiculing the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, writing:

Look, be an advocate if you choose. Thats great. But just dont pretend to be "objective."

Ironically, one of the most notorious efforts of the Daschle V Thune blog was an ongoing effort to point out undisclosed connections between a reporter for the Argus Leader and the Democratic Party.

Ive no problem with advocacy. Bloggers are pundits, not reporters. But their failure to disclose that they were working on behalf of the Thune campaign is a sad deception. [especially of Instapundit, who linked them dozens of time]

It wasn't just Instapundit, either; Hugh Hewitt featured both blogs on his radio show numerous times, trying to help the Thune campaign in its bid to unseat Tom Daschle. We accepted them as members of the fraternity rather than simply an extension of the campaign. Would we have accepted them any less, or treated their posts with more skepticism, had we known that they received funding from Thune's campaign? Probably; at least we would have had the option.

In my opinion, bloggers who wish to do serious work should disclose all funding sources that could present a conflict of interest. In the case of DvT, clearly those payments cast a different light on their writing. Had Thune just bought blogads for their site, we would have seen the sponsorship up front and incorporated that information into our estimation of their credibility. The very fact that they chose not to disclose the payments or sponsorship in general now calls their motives and work into serious question.

Am I angry about this? Not especially. Neither site pretended to present an unbiased look at the race -- DvT overtly supported John Thune from the start of the blog. (Like Pat, I didn't read SDP.) Now that the payments have been disclosed, the bloggers have to answer to the marketplace, and I suspect they will suffer a marked loss of readership -- which is the only coin of this realm. The free market of ideas works similarly to any other free market; if the supplier can't be trusted, people find a different supplier.

As Jon says, this should be a lesson to all bloggers: fully disclose if you value credibility, especially if your mission is ostensibly to counter the bias of the mainstream media in your market, as was DvT. Otherwise, the mission begins to look somewhat hypocritical.

Addendum: We're filling in for Hugh Hewitt again tonight, and the CBS story will be one of our main topics of discussion. I'm sure we'll also be discussing the ethical ramifications of disclosure for the blogosphere. Be sure to tune us in!

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 9, 2004 12:38 PM

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