Late Disclosure, or Late Recognition?

Media | Familiarity
Tonight the Powerline Blog, on a roll from its December triumph as Time magazines “Blog of the Year,” relays this blurb: “Tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal reports the news that has been roiling the blogosphere today: ‘Dean campaign made payments to two bloggers.’ Roiling? Will this roil blogosphere? There have been three trackbacks to Powerline, and two of them have debunked this as truly being news. This will be third, but I promise the most thoroughly written and the most fun.

The Journal is more making news here than breaking it, but I can’t really fault Powerline for jumping on the bandwagon with a hit-and-run link to it. It’s as if every time the word “blogger” is mentioned in a major media story, every blogger jumps up, like the horses whinny with every mention of “Frau Bleucher” in the Mel Brooks farce Young Frankenstein. Bleucher! Blogger! I only choose to write about this in such detail as I’ve written several pieces in the last two weeks on the theme of how the truth gets bounced around in the media.

Here’s how the Journal article boldly begins:

Howard Dean’s presidential campaign hired two Internet political “bloggers” as consultants so that they would say positive things about the former governor’s campaign in their online journals, according to a former high-profile Dean aide

Zephyr Teachout, the former head of Internet outreach for Mr. Dean’s campaign, made the disclosure earlier this week in her own Web log, Zonkette.

Of course, this is hardly news. The article concedes that “the hiring of the consultants was noted in several publications at the time.” So Monday’s Zonkette disclosure is hardly of the first order. It was first revealed, oh, eighteen months ago in a post by one of the bloggers, Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga in his post “Full Disclosure”:

“I spent this weekend in Burlington, VT, where we officially accepted work on behalf of presidential candidate Howard Dean. Dean joins a Senate candidate in our still small but hopefully growing roster of clients. … for the record, I will not discuss my role within the Dean campaign, other than to say it’s technical, not message or strategy. I will also not discuss any of my other clients, including their identities. ”

It’s possible that the general population never picked up on this, this being a 18 months ago– so long ago that, in the interest of irrelevant disclosure, I was actually volunteering for the Dean campaign at that point (attended one meetup, handed out flyers at the Fourth of July on the Esplanade, and then went into political hibernation for six months, before jumping ship, picking another candidate, and then rationalizing my decision to go with the hometown hero). But it wasn’t the last word on Kos’s affiliation.

Zephyr noted also that she had brought this up with several bloggers in an online discussion Now there are millions of blogs, and perhaps billions of posts, how might one have known about this particular thread? It was quite a memorable conversation, beginning with an a 800-word response by Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism at NYU, in reaction to his Harvard Kennedy School counterpart, Alex Jones’s LA Times Op-Ed “Bloggers Are the Sizzle, Not the Steak: Convention seats do not turn Internet gossips into journalists.” A number of the prominent campaign bloggers chimed in, including Zephyr who borught up the ethical question about conflict of interest. Here’s a copy of the discussion (as the original filled up with a few hundred posts, it is virtually unusuable).

Matt Stoller, July 19, 4:26pm, 8th post: “Just to be clear, Kos was always extremely upfront about his consulting work for Dean. He posted about his relationship fairly frequently, and put a disclaimer on his front page.”

Kos, July 20, 2:44am, 16th post: “As Matt pointed out, it wasn’t a big secret that I helped out with the Dean campaign. It was only noted on a freakin’ disclaimer on my home page. ”

The coup du grace was Kos subsequently leveling an epithet at the mainstream media, a bit more colorful than the one he had dropped afew months earlier about military contractors. Granted, few people take notice when it’s the media cursed at, but I built an essay around it (Rage Against the Elite and Mainstream Media).

Now, still, despite the enormous gold mine that I claim this is, it’s possible that this did not get out to the world at large. Nonetheless, the essence of this was captured in a New York Times Magazine story by Matthew Klam, “Fear and Laptops on the Campaign Trail.” This article was also cited by Zephyr in her post. Once more:

“According to Teachout, they [Zuniga and Armstrong] were posting comments in support of candidates for whom they were also working as paid consultants and not explaining that conflict of interest, or at least not fully enough for Teachout.”

Now, maybe the Wall Street Journal, due to some inter-Gotham rivalry surpassed only by that between the Yankees and the Mets, which itself is surpassed only by that between Zabar’s and Zaro’s, which itself has a new pair of challengers in the form of Bernard Kerik and ethical judgment, maybe the Journal did not want to cite the New York Times (I’m joking. The real rivalry is between the Post and the News). Instead they could have used enter the terms Kos paid consultant Dean in to Google. The very first link brings up a feature on Kos in the San Francisco Chronicle from a year ago, Web forum shapes political thinking / Dean consultant in Berkeley builds ‘blog’ into influential tool. Now, it’s quite possible that the headline writer just made something up, which happens, so let’s look at the seventh sentence:

“[Daily Kos] is run by a man who is a paid consultant for Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean, although he will accept any Democrat instead of President Bush.”

By now that this fact has been disclosed more times than the disclosure that there were no WMD’s in Iraq for the last decade, yet still certain segments of the population seem to react as if that were news. The disclosure was made 18 months ago. It was told in a major newspaper 12 months ago. The dirty laundry was sorted 6 months ago. With a little more searching, I discovered that it was dissected in the conservative blogs 15 months ago. The only new twist to the story, besides Zephyr preparing her thoughts for the upcoming Berkman Center conference on Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility is that in the last month, a few conservative commentators have been outed for being paid flacks– after not having disclosed it themselves. The Journal article alertly mentions the recent uproar of syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams receiving $240,000 promoting “No Child Left Behind.” That earned one sentence in the article.

Now there’s still some context missing– it’s hardly the case that Kos was the only blogger who got paid during the campaign season; it’s just that Zephyr cited him through her firsthand knowledge. The Journal had other useful examples. A month prior, reporter John Fund wrote an article How Daschle Got Blogged, subtitled “And how online journalism is transforming politics.” The gist of the article was just as Dan Rather and 60 Minutes “got blogged”, or taken down by regular joe bloggers (which is not precisely how it happened), so too had the Senate’s Minority Leader.

The article reported of two local bloggers, John Lauck, a Professor at the University of South Dakota, and Jason Van Beek, a student at that institution, who were prominent in their campaign against Daschle. The article also relayed that they had received $27,000 and $8,000, respectively from the John Thune senatorial campaign. These secondary cause of these conservative bloggers was centered around their complaint that the Argus Leader tilted left. South Dakota in a state of Righteous Republicanism, our nation’s “nucleus of rectitude” (as P.J. O’Rourke observes by looking at a series of maps of county-by-county data in this month’s Atlantic Monthly).

For an ethical perspective, Fund spoke to “Paul Erickson, a Republican activist”, who delivers this breathtaking insight into how his party has burnished its reputation as the keeper of values: “The difference was that everyone was aware the bloggers were biased, while the Argus Leader pretended otherwise.”

Wrong difference. There’s a gulf of difference, as Armstrong Williams is now in a position to explain, between having an opinion and getting paid by interests who will profit from that opinion. “I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard,” he told the Associated Press.

Whether bloggers need to meet that standard has caught the attention of the Berkman conference; Charlene Li has some blogging policy examples, and I made my own ethical considerations. Though I don’t see it troubling readers as much if a blogger– and here I use the very-broad definition of someone who self-publishes online– has conflicts of interest and discloses them, as Kos did.

My bigger worry is the content of media; the “hit-and-run” pieces which do a quick hit on a subject before moving along. I feel that the Journal article did this, and the Powerline blurb hardly helped matters. But that’ll be the next essay.

Update Jan 16th: I was busy following this story yesterday on Zonkette. I see that I missed a couple of responses that were also posted late Thursday night by the principal actors: Jerome Armstrong and Kos.
My own response continues here: Dissecting a the most imporant podcast to date
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