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Not-So-Spontaneous Human Combustion


It’s a holiday weekend, things are slow, the perfect time to review the little “blogging ethics” contretemps going out there. This isn’t all about paying “bloggers” for influence. Some, to my jaundice and cynical eye, are very much connected to the race for the DNC Chairmanship.
Last week, Zephyr Teachout former Howard Dean campaign director of Internet organizing put a post up on what she – and she has got to be joking – calls a private website saying that Dean paid a bunch of bloggers who supported his candidacy.
Now, let’s get something straight from the start. There are no angels here. The two bloggers who accepted payments from the Dean campaign, Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong aren’t the innocents they’d like you and the rest of their partisan readers and supporters to think they are. They have no qualms about having their readers think they’re some new kind of journalists but they are, really, political activists and organizers. Teachout is no babe in the woods, either. Her comments revealed nothing new. The fact that she made them, however, was newsworthy. And that she, well-known from the Dean campaign, made them against two equally well-known bloggers, made the story national news. She can protest all she wants – and she is – but she knew the impact that post would have when she clicked on the “publish” tab.

Why is she pointing fingers now? Is Teachout trying to get more attention at the Harvard confab she’s attending next week? Probably. It worked, too, didn’t it? Is she hoping to use the publicity that will come from the Harvard conference to cripple Moulitsas and Armstrong’s credibility? Looks that way from here. But why? Hmmmm. Well lookee here. Along with former Dean campaign manger Joe Trippi — who hired Kos and Armstrong — the two bloggers Dean paid are now supporting New Democratic Network CEO Simon Rosenberg as an alternative to Dean in the race for DNC Chairman. And whaddya know? Teachout has endorsed Dean in a post that runs right above the ethics allegations. What’s more, the ethics post includes a second, pointed shot at Matt Stolleranother former Deaniac, on-line activist and commentator – and his work for Rosenberg. This, my friends, is spin. It’s positioning. It’s politics. And it ain’t a coincidence.
Teachout’s Dean endorsement and her comments on ethics couldn’t be better timed. They come just as Big Media has decided on-line reporting and commentary isn’t going away. We were long overdue for a good juicy story that allows the boys and girls with salaried journalism jobs to look down their noses at the up-and-comers. (I have what you might call a unique perspective on this issue having had to struggle against some nasty and what I and others believe were unfair allegations that I created “the potential for a conflict of interest” in a 1999 when I bought and sold some “friends and family” stock then wrote about for Fortune. It was a bum rap that stuck with me, in part, because it took so long – two years – to resolve the dispute that followed).
In Big Media ethics rules – which are casually and arbitrarily enforced — have become more than guidelines on how to do the job. They are the heart of the intricate and delicately constructed mechanism by which Big Media’s employees justify their power and the limits placed – by management – on their personal lives. Here’s the arrangement: Writers, reporters, and some editors – and not all of them by any means, count on that – trade lousy salaries, crummy working conditions, long hours as well as bans on emotional, financial or civic involvement in their non-media community for power. The power to influence public opinion, to decide what’s important. To make or break reputations.
On-line writing dilutes that influence. It trumps the power Big Media grants its employees. It questions their authority and it’s not polite about it either. In raising its hand – or posting invective-laden HTML code — to ask why a story is written, played, or edited the way it is, on-line writing has fractured the deal Big Media employers and employees have crafted. And they are not happy. So they are raising allegations and slinging mud, worrying themselves to death over potential conflicts and disclosure. They figure if they raise enough questions readers will come back to “the most trusted name” in news and turn away from those on-line shysters. Fat chance. It’s behavior like this that’s driven readers away in the first place.
Now, with millions of writers online, the handful of Big Media writers are just a set of voices – some, the same stale old voices – in a sea of commentary and fact-checking. They have less power every day. And they’re still not paid well. In fact, most of them are worried – as they should be – about keeping their jobs. That’s why the Harvard symposium that Teachout is using for her bank shot against Rosenberg is so blatantly stacked against anyone with experience doing on-line reporting and writing, anyone who can talk about both worlds and the changes on the horizon in terms Big Media understands. (By my rough count, a conference entitled “Blogging, Journalism and Credibility” has only five out of 50 people able to call themselves experienced journalist now working on-line and that’s a stretch).
The blogola scandal, as it’s being called, also offers a preview, also long overdue in how what’s now known as the “blogosphere” is about to fracture. It’s going to split between stand alone journalists – and folks who are coming to the web and creating sites with specific agendas: Promoting Howard Dean or Simon Rosenberg, for instance. There’s going to be a division between folks writing online with lots of editorial experience and tested news judgment and those who are coming to this with an agenda or a set of very specific goals. Sooner or later — it’s already happening, really — the activists will break away from the editorial folks. Sites like this one, supported at its inception by a specific cause or campaign, will certainly grow into something larger that surpasses their original intent. They’ll stand alone and they’re be independent. But none of this is really the huge ethical dilemma for which Big Media has rolled out and ginned up the navel gazing machine. There’s lots to choose from here on the web. If you like Kos and his rants, you’ll go back. If you don’t care for MyDD, you’ll move on. Because not all websites are the same. And, hopefully, they never will be. That’s the great thing about the way journalism is being reborn on the web.
This is what Big Media – and some web writers – aren’t really getting. They want to be able to dismiss out-of-hand all their on-line competitors on ethical or technical grounds as a way to keep and consolidate their power and influence. It’s kind of like listening to the snooty small town banker’s wife shudder about “those people down the street” who give loud parties and let their three-year-olds run around naked. It’s just as petty and it’s just as narrow-minded because it tries to deflect criticism not on its merits but on superficial grounds. This snobbery will soon be seen for what it is. And the on-line folks who are trying curry favor with the banker’s wife — by drawing their own lines and creating their own classification systems without a whole lot of thought or reflection — are toeing an impossible line, one that, taken to its logical extreme, will keep them from running businesses or engaging in commerce to maintain their sites.
Not everyone uses this technology in the same way for the same purposes. Not everyone reads – or produces – a TV, newspaper or magazine story in the same way for the same impact. So it’s riduculous to compare what people do with technology using the software they employ as a starting point. Big Media’s attempts to police this is – cynically using “ethics” as if everyone on the web were the same, doing the same things – is an ignorant attempt to retain control. It’s not going to work. But it’s going to take everyone a while to come to their senses, I’m afraid. So many of those who are smart enough to know better are confused about the fights that are really taking place here.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 8:50 PM | Permalink

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