February 23, 2007

"I think there is an ethical line crossed when someone is actually being paid to sound like they're not being paid."

From an article about political campaigns infiltrating the comments sections of blogs. It shows the high standards of blogging, doesn't it? In normal life, there are plenty of places where you're paid for sounding like you're not being paid.


vbspurs said...

Quoting from the article:

Or maybe a sock puppet, shill, or a troll -- Web slang for bloggers who pretend to be grass-roots political commentators but instead are paid public relations agents.

Erm, that's not REALLY what troll and sock puppet mean.

See how journalists make false connotations, and just like that, everyone gets the wrong impression?

For World Cup 2002, the New York Times interviewed me about, amongst other things, the IRC channel I had at the time.

I had also compiled a list of important info, such as team rosters, etc., which I then posted on a soccer forum.

The reporter confused things by writing, "And then Victoria hosts a chat channel, where she hands out copies of World Cup informational packets to all who go there."

Sigh. Journalists, eh?


Randy said...

I've seen little evidence that there are any standards, much less high ones, in blogging.

Unknown said...

I am involved, but I am employed by no candidate and my views are my own.

So there!

Janus Daniels said...

Ann wrote:
""I think there is an ethical line crossed when someone is actually being paid to sound like they're not being paid."
From an article about political campaigns infiltrating the comments sections of blogs. It shows the high standards of blogging, doesn't it?"
Yes, it might.
Ann continues:
"In normal life, there are plenty of places where you're for sounding like you're not being paid."
Yes, there are, and when you go to those places, you do cross an ethical line.

PatCA said...

Note in this scolding from our print betters that no comments at all are allowed, much less a comment from a sock puppet.

The writer also doesn't mention that about 85% of the "news" in newspapers is actually pitched by PR firms or written by interested parties, like the spate of stories about our so-called abysmal savings rate written by mutual fund firms.

I wonder what candidate pitched this story?

reader_iam said...

PatCa's overall point is dead on, though I question the percentage given (no offense intended, PatCa).

But the downside for blogs could be far greater, because the blogs' credibility rests on the idea that they represent unvarnished grass-roots opinion.

Am I alone in questioning a premise or two contained in this sentence? Not to mention in wanting a definition of "grass-roots," for example?

Richard Dolan said...

Reading this reminded me of something Janet Malcolm wrote about journalists in her book, The Journalist and the Murderer. I think Malcolm was on to something that applies, perhaps only indirectly, to blogging as well:

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and 'the public's right to know'; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living."

Malcolm was writing about the deceit and conflicting personal/financial interests at the core of the collaboration between Joe McGinnis and convicted wife-killer Jeffrey MacDonald. In her book, she shows how McGinnis gained access to MacDonald and his legal defense team by pretending to agree with the defense's view of MacDonald as innocent, even though McGinnis had quickly concluded that MacDonald was almost certainly guilty. McGinnis was pretending to be working on a book favorable to MacDonald, when he was actually writing the opposite. Malcolm explores the many conflicting personal, financial and other interests in play at McGinnis's end of the relationship, and wrote a book in which McGinnis came off looking worse in many respects than the crazed killer. MacDonald sued, McGinnis defended on the ground that his only obligation was to "the truth," and was quite surprised when the civil jury split 5-1 in favor of MacDonald.

That strikes me as useful corrective here to the bromides in play in this article. The article quotes the guys who run Redstate as saying that blogs supposedly gain their strength and influence (!?!) from a belief (supposedly held by whom I don't know) that bloggers are an authentic and unadulterated vox pop forum. The purity of the vox pop aspect of the blog was impacted when someone who works for a firm that works in some capacity for the McCain campaign posted comments favorable to McCain on a site where most bloggers exhibit a conservative anti-McCain animus, without disclosing the connection.

The kind of blogging this article is talking about is a form of self-published opinion writing -- an everyman's op-ed. The whole premise of this article strikes me as a naive view of things -- the focus is on the purity of an author's motives, not the persuasiveness of what he authored; the subjective, not the objective -- and ignores the complexities and conflicting interests and motives always at work in journalism (especially opinion pieces) that Malcolm explored so effectively.

It's not that there is anything wrong with transparency and full disclosure. I'm all for it. And it's obvious that personal interests can and do color what anyone says about a particular topic, and thus are relevant in evaluating the persuasiveness of what any author has to say. But bloggers are often little more than a screen name; no information is available about them or whatever interests or agendas are at work in their blogging. If it's "ethical lines" that we want to draw, then it is important to start with a more realistic view of the nature of the territory for which those lines are being drawn. For blogging, the "ethical lines" are far more indistinct and wavy than this article suggests. According to Malcolm, the deceit that this article is worried about -- basically, pretending to be someone you're not -- cuts to the core of journalism as a profession. Given blogging's distinctive characteristics -- e.g., anonymity resulting in no real world consequences to constrain whatever crazy or even egregiously false and defamatory stuff anyone cares to write, etc. -- all manner of personal and financial interests and other agendas are bound to have at least as distorting an impact as what Malcolm was exploring in the MacDonald-McGinnis relationship.

So while transparency can help shed light on what may impact an author's take on things, the focus needs to be on the substance of what is said, and not the purity (however measured) of the person saying it. Given its usual anonymity, I think that is probably even truer of blogging than it is of more formal journalism.

The partisan moderate said...

Ann, but even a campaign is not paying a blogger directly, advertising on their blog seemingly influences that blogger. You think Hillary would be better liked by Kos if she advertised on the dailykos? I do.

As long as blogs identify who they are working for, they should be allowed to sound if they are not being paid.

A bigger problem is as blogs become more influential and player a bigger role in the spreading of news stories, is what do about it, especially given the constitutional issues revolving around free speech.

Daryl Herbert said...

What percentage of letters to the editor are phony, drummed-up recitations of somebody's talking points?