May 8, 2005

We don't need your code of ethics.

Adam Cohen has a long-winded, flat-footed piece on the NYT editorial page about bloggers and ethics. He wants more rules -- a code -- to bind bloggers to the same ethical standards that bind journalists. Eason Jordan and Dan Rather got into a lot of trouble when they violated the journalistic code of ethics, but their "misdeeds would most likely not have landed them in trouble in the world of bloggers, where few rules apply."

Please. The journalistic code didn't keep Jordan and Rather in line. It was the bloggers, invoking their own standards -- not a code but an evolving culture -- that called them to account. Any bloggers with any kind of high profile will be similarly called to account if they violate the blogosphere's cultural norms. And Jordan and Rather can take up blogging any minute they want. Our practice is open to anyone who wants to join.

The difference is, there's no pedestal to jump right on top of and have an instant readership as there is when you're hired on by mainstream media. We only have the readership we can attract with the strength of our own writing. We have to build that readership and keep it with constant writing. No one would ever be in a position to invoke a rule and fire us. It's all a matter of whether the readers stay or go. In a sense, we're constantly getting hired and fired in tiny increments as individuals decide whether or not to click to our sites one more time. We're living on the edge. Mainstream journalists can whine and look on with jealousy over the things that bind them and not us, but they've got their pedestal and their paycheck, and we don't. We deserve to be different.

And the great value of the blogosphere is that, in this difference, we are constantly engaged in creating something new. Is that hard for MSM to adapt to, to get a grip on? Good!

UPDATE: Citizen Z gives Cohen the tweak he so richly deserves for claiming that the call for a code of ethics is coming from the blogosphere.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Larry Ribstein has the most pro-code piece I've seen. Mindles H. Dreck says there is no institution -- no Bloggers Guild -- to adopt and enforce a code, so the whole idea makes no sense. Steven Taylor knocks Cohen about corrections: we're much better than MSM at making corrections.

YET MORE: Christine Hurt asks: "What is a 'code of ethics'? Sarbanes-Oxley requires reporting companies to have one posted on their website, and apparently journalists have one, too. The Pink Ladies and the T-Birds had a 'code' in Grease 2."

AND: I love Jeff Jarvis's comprehensive attack (especially the part where he quotes Cohen, interlaced with his own retorts in brackets).

So what do you think: is Cohen reading all the bloggers who are responding to him? Is he enjoying all the linkage?


Adam said...

Thanks for posting this.

I've been working through some of these issues on behalf of clients as the FEC considers new rulemaking on Internet political activity, and I'm 95% of the way with you in terms of the essential free market point -- without credibility, blogs have no readers, and the long-term desire for readership will constrain bloggers into acting ethically.

But the other 5% is the short-term, and we saw in the 2004 race the first steps of discarding the long-term for the short-term win, with campaigns and candidates paying free-lance bloggers to run pro-Thune, anti-Daschle blogs in South Dakota as a conduit to leak information to the MSM and prod the MSM into giving their candidate favorable coverage.

For these guys, long-term blogger credibility wasn't an issue, and so the relationship wasn't disclosed on the website until a month after the campaign. (It was in the FEC records if you were willing to wade through 3500+ pages of a nonsearchable PDF report.) Indeed, one of the bloggers was subsequently hired by Sen. Thune for his staff, so his behavior was rewarded, not punished.

So that's the question for me: assuming that we agree that it's bad for campaigns to hire bloggers as de facto agents without disclosing it, what's the remedy, and how do you constrain its parameters?

Ann Althouse said...

Adam: the free-market response to the bloggers-on-the-payroll problem is easy. We all just need to be skeptical, just as we are in real life when we meet people and pick up cues and think about hidden interests. No rule is going to save us from tricksters. Everyone will have to use their heads and try to detect cheaters. He sounds like he's on the payroll. That will make us smarter.

Ann Althouse said...

Dave: I'm sure Adam Cohen is smart enough to already understand all of this, but he, like other journalists, is afraid of the power of bloggers and is trying to fight back. Don't read those bloggers! They're no good! It may influence some newspaper readers to avoid reading blogs. Blogs are bad! They're unethical!

Anonymous said...

Ann, first of all, congratulations for passing 1.5 million hits.

I think you hit the nail on the head with this; journalists are losing their power to influence and don't want to. Therefore very few opinion pieces are going to be favorable to bloggers.

Political bloggers are typically skeptical people anyway, I think. That's why they started blogging.

Adam said...

Ann, we need to be skeptical as readers, but you know how it happens these days. One blog initiates a story, then others pick it up through one of the big aggregators (Kos, Reynolds, Corner, etc.), then it hits the mainstream media in a day or two -- and once a story gets that imprimatur, it's golden.

Ann Althouse said...

Adam: You have to explain to me why that isn't free speech, pure and simple.

vnjagvet said...

The cat's out of the bag, the horse is out of the barn, the cork is out of the bottle, etc., etc.

Efforts by THE PRESS, or the GOVERNMENT at stopping the blogocracy or even the blogosphere will be as successful as the Catholic Church was at stopping Luther's movement after Gutenberg improved printing technology and invented movable type.

Remember all of the power of Britannia could not stamp out pamphleteers like Thomas Payne.

It used to be too much trouble to try to be influential on a national scale. Life was too full of other fun stuff to do.

But now folks with real lives like you, Ann and Glenn and Jim L and Roger Simon can still enjoy their jobs, their families, their hobbies and still find time to comment in a serious way on a whole world of subjects, including the foibles of professional politicians, and professional "smart folks".

This blogging is too much fun to be throttled.

Adam said...

Of course it *is* free speech. The question isn't whether people can say these things; it's whether they need to be subject to any kind of reporting or disclosure requirements when money's involved.

Ann Althouse said...

Adam: I came out in favor of a free marketplace of ideas. You suggested there was a problem in need of a remedy. I denied the existence of a problem -- possibly too elliptically. That is my answer to your question about how to solve the problem: it's not a problem to be solved. Free speech is a positive value quite aside from the scope of the case law that permits it to be burdened.

Ann Althouse said...

But let me add: if your proposal is to require the campaigns to disclose their spending, that's different. But little bloggers shouldn't be chilled with regulation that imposes reporting requirement on them.

Adam said...

And I agree -- the law right now is that the campaign discloses and files every three months; it's never that the vendor receiving the money has to disclose as well.

To me, the answer is in making filing more often (72h after disbursement, instead of four times a year) and more easily searchable. If I'm suspicious that Joe X. is being paid, I should be able to find out in 10 seconds on

Adam said...

FWIW, this diary I did on DailyKos outlines where we are right now procedurally. Basically, the DC District Court ruled that the FEC's attempts to exempt Internet political activity (in promulgating rules under McCain-Feingold) failed Chevron, and sent it back to the FEC to come up with something.

JM Hanes said...

"The difference is, there's no pedestal to jump right on top of and have an instant readership as there is when you're hired on by mainstream media."

There's also no institutional establishment to run interference, play defense (hire lawyers!) or stonewall the public for you.

To Adam:
More frequent filing with the FEC would serve both bloggers & general public well. If the info is available, bloggers will pick up on who's getting partisan $$ with their usual speed. Why add not only another layer of regulation, but also a precedent for regulating bloggers & the net, when the campaign disclosure which is already required could more simply (if not easily) be modified? Of course, you could always just try a little more faith in the serious blog reader who is probably pretty savvy about slant, regardless of disclosure.

Bruce Hayden said...

I do think that the answer to the political speech problem is disclosure. But then, my impession is that last time around, some of the candidates themselves and 527 groups played the delayed disclosure game in order to hide their donations until too late.

The result, I will suggest, of requiring disclosure would be something akin to what Taranto does to some of his favorite targets, such as "Enron Advisor" Paul Krugman. The ability to tie those who take money with the money they took goes a long way in negating any claim that money is buying publicity in the blogosphere.

And I agree with Ann completely, that absent money, it is 100% a free speech issue.

MT said...

It's not quite true about bloggers getting fired, because Google will keep your early popular work alive and prominent to any blogosphere outsider who comes a searching long after you've destroyed your credibility with insiders.