There seems to be an outbreak of ethical scandals and pseudo-scandals among bloggers and pundits lately, doesn’t there? How to keep them straight? Herein, a field guide, each with its own Impropriety Level (I.L.), measured on a scale of one through ten, one being entirely innocuous and ten being heinously unethical.
Jon Lauck & Jason Van Beek: During the 2004 campaign, these South Dakota bloggers, of Daschle v. Thune and South Dakota Politics, respectively, did excellent work keeping up with that state’s Senate race, and tweaking the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Neither disclosed, however, that they were paid advisers to the Thune campaign, either on their blogs or in columns that Lauck wrote for National Review Online. I.L.: 7.
Anyone reading their blogs would have learned very quickly that Lauck and Van Beek were pro-Thune, and both were blogging before they were hired as consultants (though Lauck had worked on Thune’s 2002 congressional campaign). According to Lauck, because it was reported in South Dakota media when he was hired by the Thune campaign, he didn’t think to put a disclosure statement on his blog or to let NRO editor Kathryn Jean Lopez know about it when his columns were prepared. If he had so disclosed, Lopez wouldn’t have run his pieces at all, and the national audience for their blogs would have read their work in a slightly different context — and not felt deceived when they learned of the consulting work in December.
Armstrong Williams: In the most infamous of these cases, the radio and television host and syndicated columnist received $240,000 from the Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. Not only did Williams record ads for the law in which he interviewed Education Secretary Rod Paige, his contract called for him “to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts.” He didn’t properly disclose this relationship when commenting on the law, either in broadcast or in print (he wrote several columns about NCLB). I.L.: 9.
Outrage at Williams is justified; not only did he fail to disclose his financial interests, his shilling for the Department of Education was done on taxpayers’ dime (not, say, with campaign money). Tribune Media Services, his syndicate, properly dropped his column after USA Today reported on the contract.
Markos Moulitsas Zuniga: The host of the popular lefty blog DailyKos.com, Moulitsas, better know as Kos, ran a consulting firm with fellow blogger Jerome Armstrong of mydd.com; they worked for Howard Dean, among other candidates. Armstrong quit blogging during the campaign, and Moulitsas put a disclaimer on DailyKos stating that he was doing technical consulting for Dean and other campaigns that, because of non-disclosure agreements, he couldn’t reveal. Recently, Dean campaign aid Zephyr Teachout revealed that within the campaign, there was a sense that Moulitsas was hired more to get his blog-readers on Dean’s side (before he was hired he was saying many nice things about Wesley Clark) than for his technical consulting services, which they could get elsewhere for a better price. I.L.: 3.
Since the campaign, Moulitsas hasn’t made a habit of disclosing who he’s worked for — something most media figures would do. He’s repeatedly insisted that since he’s “not a journalist,” standard journalistic practice doesn’t apply. Revealingly, he told Glenn Reynolds that he doesn’t think there was anything wrong with what the South Dakota bloggers did. And given that he’s written, based on a vague comment by Armstrong Williams that “there are others,” that “we can assume every conservative pundit is on the White House’s payola rolls,” it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately, though, as far as the contract with the Dean campaign goes, it’s the consultees rather than the consultant who deserve scorn; Moulitsas was more of a dupe than a shill.
Maggie Gallagher: The most overblown of the scandals. In 2002, Gallagher did some work for the Department of Health and Human Services on the Bush administration’s marriage-promotion initiatives — preparing presentations for officials and authoring brochures about marriage, and similar things. Later, when she wrote about related issues, she failed to disclose the work she’d done. I.L.: 2.
Howard Kurtz, who broke this story this week, has tried to link it to the Williams case; so have Ted Kennedy and Frank Lautenberg, who’ve proposed a “Stop Government Propaganda Act,” stating that “Funds appropriated to an Executive branch agency may not be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States unless authorized by law.” But Gallagher’s case is different — she was paid for work she’d done for HHS behind the scenes, not for her public work. Her editors at National Review Online and Tribune Media Service say they would have preferred to have a disclosure, but they are not saying, as NRO did with Lauck and as TMS did with Williams, that they wouldn’t have run her work if they had only known.
Michael McManus: Like Gallagher, McManus worked for HHS on a marriage initiative, in his case giving education and training seminars; like Gallagher, he did not disclose his relationship when he wrote about the initiative in his syndicated column. I.L. 2, assuming there isn’t more to the story (it’s the latest to have broken).
This is exactly the same situation as Gallagher’s. Dr. Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at HHS, announced yesterday that the department would be implementing a policy that forbids working with experts who work in the media. That would either result in fewer experts writing publicly or fewer working for the government; let’s hope it’s the latter.
While it’s impossible to disclose every conceivable conflict of interest all the time, if commentators would merely remember to disclose as much as possible, a lot of the current panic over ethics would be deflated. Whether or not opinion writers and bloggers qualify as “journalists,” they — we — certainly owe readers that modicum of courtesy.