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Making Conversation

Dec
16
2005

Doug Bandow is only the tip of the iceberg — and his fate is an instructive one. Bandow, an erstwhile senior fellow at the Cato Institute, was found to have been in the pay of the ever-more-notorious Jack Abramoff. The scholar received funds for a junket to the Marianas Islands — an Abramoff client — and wrote columns on the Commonwealth’s behalf as a quid pro quo. In the light of day, the Bandow-Abramoff connection has resulted in the former losing his job and his syndicated column.

Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation was also revealed to be on the Abramoff payroll. He is unrepentant, but most in his position won’t be. There will assuredly be more and bigger names as Abramoff’s contacts become public, and the cumulative effect upon the public’s trust in its opinionmakers — and policymakers’ trust in its policy analysts — may be profound.

The issues of influence and disclosure go beyond traditional journalists, scholars, and editorialists. If blogs are the coming operational model of journalism — and I suspect they are — then it’s time for them to face up to their present and future roles in the media universe, and behave with some manner of responsibility. Have no doubt that lobbying and advocacy entities are already hiring bloggers with the intent of influencing them and their sites; and have no doubt that the public barely knows the half of it.

Still, it’s often possible to spot when a blogger’s extracurricular interests influence his site and his work. Here’s an example:

Markos Moulitsas, proprietor of the single most successful blog on the planet, has a book coming out. It’s been known for some time that this book has been in the works.

On an apparently unrelated note, in November 2005, Moulitsas starts plugging Unembedded, a photojournalism book filled with (apparently quite good) images from Iraq. He plugs it and plugs it and plugs it and plugs it. Some readers wonder why, and some voice suspicions that this is a paid product placement, or an effort by Moulitsas to make money off of his Amazon affiliate status. Moulitsas plausibly points out that his Amazon income is quite small; and he insists that he has no ulterior motive beyond a sincere love of this remarkable book.

A few weeks later, Moulitsas announces pre-sales of his book. He reveals that the publisher — chosen because “we wanted an environmentally responsible company in what is a hugely wasteful industry” — is Chelsea Green, a small publisher specializing in “progressive” books.

By remarkable coincidence, Chelsea Green is the publisher of Unembedded.

Now, it’s possible that Markos Moulitsas became enthused enough with an otherwise obscure photojournalism tome from an otherwise obscure publisher to devote a great deal of time and space on his blog to promoting its purchase wholly independent of his then-unannounced business affiliation with that same publisher. It’s also possible that the Earth is 6,000 years old. Common sense suggests otherwise in both cases. How this affects his readers’ trust in him and his forthrightness is for them to decide.

This isn’t the first time that Moulitsas has been at the center of a possible cash-for-access story — nor is it the first time he’s decided he’s exempt from the ethical and behavioral strictures of other self-appointed members of the media. Earlier this year, a controversy was sparked by Zephyr Teachout’s assertion that Moulitsas (along with his book co-author Jerome Armstrong) was paid by the 2004 Howard Dean campaign in part to ensure favorable blogging for the candidate. (See Moulitsas’ self-defense here.)

That inconclusive contretemps didn’t last long — in part because alienating the febrile leftists of the “netroots” was an obviously poor move for Teachout’s future — but it didn’t have to. Regardless of the reality of the Teachout and Chelsea Green cases, we know that other bloggers are quite willingly allowing their fiscal and business interests to affect their writing and their blogs. This is eminently defensible if there’s full disclosure, and not just where bloggers are concerned: I, for example, work at the Pacific Research Institute, I write nothing related to my work there without telling readers, and I am on something of a jihad on these matters. Now you know.

A shame that readers of pro-Thune, pro-Republican bloggers Jason van Beek and Jon Lauck never knew that the duo was on the payroll of the 2004 Thune campaign till well after the fact. Their failure to disclose, coupled with the revelations of Bush Administration payoffs to non-blog media figures, discredited conservatives in media in the eyes of many — indeed, many of us still face the resultant hurdles in our own media engagements.

More’s the pity, then, that some prominent conservative bloggers still don’t feel an obligation to fully disclose their business and fiscal ties — to say nothing of disclosing how it affects the sites under their control. When these things come to light, the discredit upon conservatism online will be immense and lasting. Beyond conservatism, the discredit to bloggers will redound beyond ideological boundaries. This may seem of limited importance in a world where blogs are forever the playthings of pedants and amateurs. In a world where the online side of the Washington Post feels empowered to ignore the protests of its print sister about its own de facto blogger, it’s an immensely disturbing harbinger of the future of public discourse in America.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 11:59 PM | Permalink

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