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A Few Thoughts on the Right-Wing Blog War Over “Virginia Blogs, Money, Consulting and Ethics”

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Once upon a time, back in the long-ago days of 2005, the Virginia political blogosphere was just getting going. Believe it or not, progressive and conservative bloggers would actually sit down with each other occasionally, including at events like the August 2005, Sorensen Institute “Summit on Blogging and Democracy in the Commonwealth.” Among other things at that summit, we discussed “Blog Ethics and Regulation: Towards Developing a Blogging Code of Conduct.” Among others, Will Vehrs of Bacon’s Rebellion developed a proposal. Part of rule #1 – “I do not seek nor will I accept any payment for expressing opinions without advance notification to my readers.” – jumps out at me, as it’s exactly what the Virginia right-wing blogosphere is vehemently arguing (note: excellent article by conservative blogger Justin Higgins) about right now (note: one righty blogger – Brian Schoeneman – apparently threatening to sue another – Greg Letiecq – for defamation). My version of that rule? As I wrote at the time:

Fully disclose.  Unless there is some overriding ethical or legal reason why you shouldn’t, let your readers know the following information: your true name, your political affiliations and personal agendas wherever applicable, your weblog’s purpose and mission, your personal connections to partisan elected officials (if relevant), and any payments you receive related to what you write on your blog.

How has the Virginia blogosphere done on that front since 2005?

*Personally, I used my real name (Lowell Feld) throughout the “Raising Kaine,” “RK” and early “Blue Virginia” periods. When we moved Blue Virginia back to Soapblox, I decided to go with “lowkell,” which is the screen name I use at Daily Kos and other sites, more for convenience and consistency purposes than anything else. But I obviously don’t think it’s hard to figure out my real name (which I’ve just mentioned, yet again, a few words ago), just as most people know who “Not Larry Sabato” really is (Ben Tribbett).

*I feel like we’ve made it abundantly clear what the purpose of the blog is – “to cover Virginia politics from a progressive and Democratic perspective” as a group and community blog. The same thing, in other words, as when we were “Raising Kaine” and “RK.” Anyone who fails to comprehend the concept that we are progressives, writing from that perspective, is…well, not too bright, let’s just leave it at that.

*With regard to payments received, my policy has always been to err on the side of MORE disclosure rather than less. Thus, when I worked for Jim Webb as netroots coordinator starting in July 2006, I made that abundantly clear. Prior to that, I was NOT working for Jim Webb (except as a volunteer, for no monetary compensation), so there was no need for disclosure obviously. Over the next few years, I consulted to a variety of candidates and organizations (e.g., the South Dakota Democratic Party, Judy Feder for Congress, Mark Herring for Attorney General), and always made an effort to be  open and honest about these paid relationships (note that in cases where an ad is running on Blue Virginia, the disclosure seems obvious to me – they are paying to run the ad). Not that I think it’s legally required or anything, but I DO think it’s important in political blogging, opinion writing, etc. to let readers know where the author is coming from. And that’s what I’ve tried to do, and what others here at Blue Virginia have tried to do.

*The irony is that I got attacked even when I was absolutely NOT getting paid by a candidate. Classic case in point: the 2009 Virginia Democratic primary, when I received the grand total of ZERO dollars from the Terry McAuliffe for Governor campaign, or from any other group or individual promoting Terry McAuliffe (full disclosure: I did receive a ticket to the Shad Planking from the McAuliffe campaign, as well as a ticket to Gerry Connolly’s St. Patrick’s Day “fete”), yet got viciously attacked for supposedly being on T-Mac’s payroll anyway. Sigh… Sometimes, honestly, it feels like it’s a no-win situation, in that even IF you fully disclose, people still don’t believe you anyway. And, in fairness, there are a gazillion ways to hide payments in the world of politics (or business or any other world, for that matter), so the lack of trust is not total paranoia or anything. Still, as someone who really prides himself on his personal integrity, it frustrates me a lot. (note: just last night on Twitter, a campaign manager for an 8th CD Democratic campaign charged that I was employed by a specific candidate, which is TOTALLY FALSE; as of this moment, they still haven’t retracted their false charge, let alone apologized to me for making it).

It’s important to point out that this “full dislosure” standard is clearly NOT what is followed, by and large, in the corporate/”mainstream” media. For instance, this study by the Checks and Balances Project found that “think tanks” and “experts” funded heavily by the fossil fuel industry frequently are quoted or place op-eds with major media outlets in this country, without any disclosure at all (or minimal disclosure) of who’s paying them, what their organization stands for, who they’re tied to, etc, etc. Thus, “ties to fossil fuel donors were not included in most mentions” in newspapers, while “financial ties between the mentioned organizations and fossil fuel interests were noted only 6% of the time in articles or editorial pieces in which the organizations appeared.” At best, the fossil-fuel-funded organizations were usually referred to in vague terms as “free-market-oriented” or “conservative” or whatever. That’s totally unhelpful to the reader, of course, and totally unethical as well.

As to the specifics of the Virginia right-wing blogger fight currently underway over who may or may not be getting paid, I find the whole thing kind of depressing. I mean, here we are, 9 years after that Sorensen Institute discussion on blogger ethics, and there still doesn’t appear to be any progress towards an agreed-upon, enforced blogger “code of ethics.” It’s also kind of hilarious to see one particular blogger, who has never openly disclosed his financial ties/political relationships, accusing others of not disclosing their financial ties/political relationships. Can we say “psychological projection?”

Beyond the issue of bloggers being paid for consulting to campaigns – which in my view is perfectly kosher, as long as it’s disclosed – Will Vehrs’ other proposed rules aren’t in great shape either, either in the blogosphere or the “mainstream media.” For instance, corporate outlets like the Washington Post routinely violate the fundamental journalist ethic that “I will always credit the work of others and provide links to that work wherever possible.” And the rule about “not knowingly publish[ing] information that is false or incorrect” and “offer[ing] a correction and an apology” if that happens is certainly not consistently followed. If it were, we would never see climate science denial published at all, let alone smears of climate scientists like Michael Mann (currently in the process of pursuing a libel/slander suit for malicious lies about him). Yet we see false information like climate science denial, frequently, even at “leading” blogs and newspapers. It’s appalling and should be totally unacceptable for anyone with the slightest pride of desire to be taken seriously.

Sadly, such is the state of the world we live in, I guess, and the character of fallible human beings. I’m sure we’ll never achieve perfection, but I also see no reason why we shouldn’t strive to uphold the highest standards of journalistic – and personal – integrity as we go about our lives.

  • Dan Sullivan

    doesn’t know enough about Virginia politics to be of much use to the candidate.

    And I would never have expected Brian Kirwin could be so naive to expect mutual respect when it conflicts with Greg Letiecq’s self-interests. Greg has provided so many teachable moments about civil discourse and dispassionate analysis over the years.  

  • ir003436

    First:  Thanks, lowkell, for your full disclosure.  I have no doubt that you, being a progressive Democrat, are an honorable person who can be counted on to do the right thing.

    Second:  Republicans at each other’s throats???  Sharpening their long knives???  Plotting assassination??  Throwing bombs at each other???  I’d call that a good start!!!!