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January 15, 2005
Kos, Teachout, Williams, Lauck, Van Beek

Earlier this week, Zephyr Teachout wrote a post for her blog Zonkette, which eventually made it to the Wall Street Journal, disclosing the Howard Dean campaign's payments to the Daily Kos and MyDD bloggers Markos Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong. The accusations of conflicted interest have risen to fever levels in the blogosphere, along with yet another argument about what what ethical standards bloggers owe their readers. I have received e-mails asking why I've remained silent on this issue.

Well, I haven't remained silent. Five weeks ago, when the shoe was on the right foot, I wrote that bloggers accepting payments from political campaigns outside the transparency of fully-displayed advertisements -- which don't even have to be exclusive! -- risk their credibility and reputation. I wrote that after the revelation that the John Thune campaign paid two bloggers several thousand dollars to join the campaign, and neither disclosed their relationship despite the race being the primary focus of their blogs:

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.

As I see it, the only differences between the two situations mitigate the damage. Kos disclosed the relationship, and Jerome stopped blogging until the end of the election, being too busy with his consultancy. Some claim that Kos should have disclosed the relationship every day, but as a blogger myself, I know that's impractical at best, and would annoy the regular readers. (I'm not one of them; I still consider Kos despicable after his "screw them" comment about the butchered Americans in Fallujah.) As far as I'm concerned, he at least met the minimum ethical standard applicable, even if that seems to some a bit half-hearted. Besides, Kos is known for his connections to the Democratic Party as a fundraiser, so connections to major campaigns will always exist at Daily Kos. I assume it's part of the attraction.

The difference between Kos and Armstrong Williams is that disclosure, plus the money that Williams got came from the pockets of all taxpayers, not a political campaign. If political campaigns like Dean and Thune want to pay for propaganda sites on the Internet, that's a private matter. However, the US has laws against stealth-propaganda techniques like what the Education Department tried with Williams. What's more, the contract with Williams specifically called for Williams to write glowing reports about NCLB and get others to do the same, all while maintaining a pristine appearance. It's a deliberate deception on the part of government towards its citizenry for purely political purposes -- it's not as if national security was at stake -- and as such, we should all object to it regardless of ideology.

As much as I dislike Kos (and I do), I have no real beef with him on this score. Had I relied on Kos' independence of thought while covering the Dean campaign, the disclosure would have told me to go elsewhere. And if the consultancy for Jerome Armstrong was meant to spread good thoughts about Dean through the blogosphere, that effort spectacularly failed. If their readers feel betrayed, they'll go elsewhere. Probably not here, of course, but elsewhere.

Five weeks ago, we had our own friends caught up in the same kind of scandal with more culpability, and some of us gave them a pass. I find it somewhat hypocritical to hoist Kos on the same petard for disclosing more, rather than less.

Ed Cone has more background on the development of the story.

UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt extends his own commentary today on this issue, and he e-mailed me with a counterpoint:

I have no beef with MyDD, but Kos shouldn't get a pass. It doesn't disclose what he did, and the Dean camapign has admitted they bought him. Much more to the point, Kos admits he has undisclosed clients, which means he may be on the payroll of the people he was raising money for. That would be a very bad thing as you would in essence be raising money for yourself.

I agree with Hugh that Kos' undisclosed clientele presents a huge problem for his credibility, and that this disclosure isn't nearly good enough from an ethical standpoint. However, Kos is known for his attachment to political campaigns, whereas Armstrong Williams, Jon Lauck, and Jason Van Beek all never disclosed any connection to partisan campaigning.

Don't get me wrong; I don't find Kos at all credible, nor do I want to remain in the position of defending Kos. I think all of those political attachments absolutely impacts his credibility, but at least his readers know of these connections and can make that decision for themselves. Lauck and Van Beek were new at blogging and learned a lesson. Armstrong Williams was supposed to be a professional, and the Department of Education violated the law and used stealth propaganda to push its politics. That's completely unacceptable and in my mind not analogous to Kos.

UPDATE II: Hugh still thinks that we need to call Kos out on his non-disclosure disclosure, and I don't necessarily disagree. His readers should have that information if Kos wants to maintain any credibility of independence. But to say that Markos didn't disclose his official connections to Dean's campaign is inaccurate, and the fact remains that the Daily Kos went further than others to make that distinction known. I think we need to call out the Dean campaign more for a stupid decision to spend $3,000 per month for Markos to write what he would have written anyway. And Dean wants to chair the DNC? I'm on board!

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 15, 2005 9:28 AM

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