I have a career-ending confession to make. During the heat of Washington state’s US senate campaign, a senior Cantwell staffer once bought me a beer. Oh sure, we were both understandably giddy after a successful campaign event. And a little drunk. But nothing can really excuse my stunning lapse of journalistic ethics.
Had I disclosed this compensation at the time, I suppose my credibility might have survived tattered but intact. But now that I’ve made my mea culpa, it’s hard to imagine that my once-loyal readers could ever trust me again. Nor should they.
Or at least, that seems to be the thinking of some of our nation’s “professional” journalists.
Today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer features an editorial chastising bloggers for their “rather surprising ties to specific politicians or parties.”
A New York Times article and chart showed extensive financial links between some prominent national bloggers and politicians across the political spectrum. Most bloggers promptly disclosed roles as campaign advisers and the like, as the article said and offended bloggers emphasized in responses. As at least one poster mentioned, though, disclosures can easily get lost.
[…] There remains a disconnect, however, between bloggers’ image and their increasing ties to the political establishment, whether the pay comes from Republican Sen. John McCain, Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton or a host of other figures.
Um… I’m not sure what “image” they’re talking about, but I find it a little offensive that “real” journalists feel that they are entitled to earn a living from their profession, but apparently us bloggers are not. And if there’s a growing disconnect, it’s between the legacy media and the millions of Americans who are now getting their news and commentary from us bloggers. Breaking news guys: our readers aren’t dumb. They know we’re biased. In fact, they expect it.
For example, I once received a small speaking fee from the SEIU for moderating a panel discussion. Should my blogging on labor issues now be discounted as biased, due to this previously undisclosed payment? No, my blogging on labor issues should be discounted as biased because I’m, um, generally biased towards labor. I’ve never claimed to be objective. I don’t think it’s even humanly possible.
Likewise, I provided plenty of advice to the Darcy Burner campaign, solicited and otherwise. Had I been compensated for my valuable political and media consulting, could my coverage of the Reichert/Burner race in WA’s 8th Congressional District have possibly been any more one-sided? I sure hope not. Once I decided that Burner had a shot at winning I was determined to do everything possible to help boost her to victory.
The point is, my readers aren’t idiots. They read me in context.
On both my blog and my weekly radio show I make it absolutely clear that I am unabashedly liberal. I wear my bias on my sleeve. I aggressively advocate for candidates and issues — and should one of these campaigns choose to hire me to do additional work behind the scenes… how is that any less ethical than the publisher of the largest newspaper in Washington state shamelessly using his op-ed pages to shill for an initiative that will save him and his heirs tens of millions of dollars? How is a payment from a candidate you openly believe in and advocate for, any more compromising than a paycheck from a publisher you fear to contradict? No one seriously believes that there is unanimity at the Seattle Times in opposition to the estate tax, and yet on such a high profile issue, of all the editorialists and columnists, only Danny Westneat had the balls to speak out against its repeal; and even then, only briefly. The Seattle Times is a newspaper that claims to objectively serve one of the most liberal, Democratic cities in the nation, and yet it had the unmitigated gall to endorse a slate of Republicans in a Blue Wave election, and suggest that the region’s interests would be better served by a half-wit, two-term minority member of Congress than a Harvard educated member of the incoming Democratic majority?
If some wealthy, Democratic benefactor were to pay me a much-needed stipend to keep me blogging, how could that possibly make HorsesAss.org any less credible than the op-ed section of the Seattle Times given its shameless, self-serving shilling over the past election cycle?
So my question for those who question the propriety of political bloggers seeking political consulting work on the side is: what is it about blogging that makes you think that we must do it for free if we’re to remain genuine and relevant? The vast majority of bloggers can’t possibly garner enough readership to earn a living from online ads — should our voices be silenced because the free market can’t support our efforts? Must the very best of us commit to a life of poverty in order to pursue our vocation full-time, or seek meaningful remuneration only from work outside our area of passion and expertise? Is a corporate paycheck the only legitimate income for an ethical journalist?
The Seattle P-I editorial board fears that we are regressing to the days when newspapers were once as openly biased as, well… us bloggers:
There’s also a back-to-the-future aspect to the one-sided advocacy. American newspapers began as organs dedicated to serving particular political parties. Advocacy is a political right and a fundamental source of U.S. strength. But it’s not the main thrust of journalism. And in the journalism generally practiced in America, accepting pay from politicians — disclosed or not — is about as far off the map as one can go.
But the “journalism generally practiced in America” today is an historical anomaly that grew out of the media consolidation that shuttered the vast majority of dailies early in the twentieth century. “Objectivity” was a necessary sales pitch required to reassure readers that one or two dailies could adequately replace the many different voices to which they had grown accustomed. It is also a wonderful ideal, though unfortunately impossible to achieve in reality, for as Woody Allen astutely observed, even “objectivity is subjective.”
I’m not one of those bloggers who long for the extinction of the legacy media, nor do I think this modern American model of an objective, fair and balanced press will ever perish at the hands of us advocacy journalists. But there’s certainly more than enough room for both models to coexist, and to some extent, converge. Both models can be equally honest and informative, as long as the practitioners remain true to themselves, and to their slightly divergent ethical principles… principles which most definitely include disclosing all relevant financial relationships.
But in the end, how is my openly biased blog really any different from the op-ed section of any major daily? Facts are facts, and when I get them wrong my readers abrasively taunt me in my comment threads. The rest of what I write is nothing but personal spin and opinion, and as long as I remain honest about who I am and what I’m trying to achieve, does it really matter who pays me?