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December 10, 2004
Jon Lauck Responds To Ethics Questions

After an exchange of e-mails last night between Jon Lauck and myself, Jon posted a long message about the ethical issues regarding revelations that he and Jason Van Beek received money as political consultants for the John Thune campaign and did not reveal that to their readers. Jon makes several good points, and the central rebuttal is this:

I see Captain Ed has noted that CBS has started criticizing bloggers now that they're about to get nailed for "memogate" and noted some in the commentariat didn't like the fact that I was a consultant to Thune, but I did a long post explaining the many problems I saw at the Argus long before I was a consultant. And SDP and Sibby and others (there was criticism going back 20 years, as it turns out, pre-blog, as the blogs discovered and revealed to those who didn't know about it) were criticizing the Argus a year-and-half before any consulting was going on. And the Argus reported I was a consultant on the front page the month after I agreed to be one. Kos and Atrios and maybe other liberal bloggers are consultants too. They have opinions. Good for them. Other bloggers take partisan advertisements, and good for them too. Blogs never claimed to be "objective" as CBS did.

Read the whole thing, as well as Jason's response to the CBS memo from December 8. Again, these two men did good work and I don't believe they meant to hide anything from anyone, in my subjective opinion. However, one of the commenters on an earlier post, Berlin, gave what I think is the most relevant analogy on this that I've read:

No one is saying that blogs cannot express an opinion. That would be absurd. But, unless one is specifically informed to the contrary, one reasonably assumes that an opinion expressed by a blog, or a journal, or a newspaper editorial, is the product of that party's analysis of whatever issue is in question.

Money changes that, which is why any decent publication (and blogs are publications) requires that any financial motive is disclosed.

Lets say I run a tech blog that reviews computers. Lets say I review a new computer X on my blog. I offer it my full support and provide a detailed analysis.

Will knowing whether I was paid $25,000 by the company which made X to write that "analysis" change your opinion of it?

Be honest now.

Addendum: Some commenters wonder why this all matters, noting that (a) no one forces anyone to read blogs, and (b) this essentially boils down to free speech, i.e., even political consultants have the right to their opinion. Actually, I agree, but in the current atmosphere, both points are irrelevant.

Taking the first as a given -- no one forces anyone to watch CBS, either -- the second is more problematic given the McCain-Feingold finance reforms. As Saint Paul pointed out on the air last night, why would the Federal Election Commission treat a blog that receives funding from a political campaign any differently than a mailer or newsletter from the campaign itself, or indeed broadcasted political advertising? That speech is now regulated, especially when the money comes from a corporation or a labor union. The next logical step for these speech-restricted entities would be to start up blogs, or better yet, co-opt existing blogs with established readerships in order to use their editorial content to push their causes. You may not think this a big deal, but what if the Kerry campaign had paid Atrios or Kos to release those TANG documents on October 31st? What if the AFL-CIO paid Matt Yglesias that same day to release the cocaine charges Kitty Kelly made in her discredited biography? I suspect some of the "live and let live" commenters might have a change of heart. (Please note that I only use the above bloggers for hypothetical purposes; I do not mean to imply that they have done or would do any such thing.)

Once that starts, the FEC and Congress will be pressured to regulate bloggers as a form of political advertising. Since the blogs in question will not necessarily disclose these relationships, it puts all of us under a microscope. Most of us could not withstand the financial burden of an FEC probe into our operations; I make a few bucks off of advertising, but nothing that could pay a good lawyer past the initial consultation. It would, in the popular jargon, have a chilling effect on blogging and political speech.

Most of this is an argument against McCain-Feingold rather than an argument for ethical disclosure by bloggers, especially political bloggers. What I argue is that if we don't establish among ourselves some standards of disclosure and ethics, it will make it more difficult to withstand the pressure from the FEC and Congress to regulate our corner of the market.

UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt adds his comments on the controversy here and here. His points on proportionality are especially good. However, I disagree with this point, where he conflates tip jars with employment:

One more thought on the controversy over the Thune campaign contributions to two South Dakota bloggers who were openly pro-Thune: Any critic of these bloggers should also be demanding that all bloggers who hold "fund-raising" support campaigns disclose in detail the sources of their contributions. Among those bloggers who have solicited such funds: Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall. Subscription campaigns like the ones run by those two and many others of course carries the possibility that donations will be made on the theory that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." The very first thing one finds at Andrew Sullivan's blog is this:


First, those contributions come with just an e-mail address and -- sometimes -- a short note; it's not like they come tied to a demand, and even if it did, you can simply ignore it. Second, accepting donations from a (hopefully) wide spectrum of your audience is not the same thing as accepting employment with one of the people your blog intends on covering. Disclosing donations would be the same as asking Hugh to identify everyone who bought his book (you know, Blog, coming to you in January -- order your copy today).

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 10, 2004 5:04 AM

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Tracked on December 10, 2004 7:20 AM

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