In an interview with CNET News (The Coming Crackdown on Blogging), Brad Smith, an Federal Election Commissioner, warns bloggers that upcoming FEC rules interpreting how the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law relates to the internet may drastically curtail the speech of bloggers. As an example, he mentions that bloggers who use their sites to campaign on behalf of a candidate are providing a measurable benefit to the campaign and that this should be counted (in some unspecified way) as a campaign contribution.
You can imagine the nightmare that would ensue: I featured a John Kerry campaign banner on my blog for several months. How much was that worth as free advertising? I wrote x number of posts in favor of Kerry or attacking Bush. How do you measure the benefit to the Kerry campaign from all this? This could turn very ugly very quickly and it sounds pretty silly on its face.
“Hey John: how much did you pay
those bloggers to smear me?”
(credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
But there are some troubling developments in the nexus between political campaigns and political blogs that I think we bloggers need to confront head on (before a hidebound government bureaucracy like the FEC confronts it for us). Jan Frel writes an eye-opening and chilling account (Blog Storm in the Midwest) of efforts during the South Dakota Senate campaign by paid political blogger/operatives of Republican candidate John Thune to smear the political coverage by the state’s main newspaper. In a very tight race, this undoubtedly softened the paper’s news and editorial positions regarding Thune and may’ve influenced just enough voters to throw the election to Thune. A law professor at the University of South Dakota and a young political entrepreneur began personal blogs before the election whose sole purpose was to attack Daschle and promote Thune. In time, both bloggers became paid consultants for the campaign. It seems clear that the only reason they were paid by Thune is for their blogging political hatchet work. Now, Thune is asked by Republicans nationally to speak about his “ground-breaking” use of blogs in campaigns. Certainly, in future campaigns both Republicans AND Democrats are going to learn from this lesson that it pays to enlist bloggers to be their hatchet persons. In effect, bloggers could become the Swift Boaters of the web. Who wants that?
I am certainly not in favor of the FEC shutting down or regulating political speech in blogs via the campaign finance law. But we’ve got to get our act together. Here are a few suggestions (not meant to be exhaustive):
1. Whoever endorses, promotes or supports any candidate via their blog (this would include hosting banner ads, writing posts promoting or attacking candidates, etc.) should disclose what, if any relationship you have with the campaign. If you are being paid, tell your readers by whom and how much. Even if you’re not being paid, if you’re coordinating your posts in any way with a campaign or consulting even unofficially, you should reveal this.
2. One way of avoiding some of the hassle is to refuse to accept paid advertising or consulting fees from campaigns. Since I haven’t ever received anything from a campaign, I wouldn’t want to presume to tell those who have that they should stop doing this. But they should be aware that it becomes highly problematic for your readers to figure out how transparent and candid you’re being with them in your posts.
This of course, doesn’t deal directly with the issues the FEC plans to regulate in terms of how or whether to regulate internet speech in political campaigns. But if bloggers could regulate themselves in the way I suggest, this would mean there’d be one less provocation that might draw them into this viper’s nest of First Amendment issues.
The blogosphere is already polluted enough with the dreck of folks like Michelle Malkin and others. Do we need to mix blogs and campaigns to create an even more rancid stew? It would break my heart to see political blogs co-opted by campaigns and turned into little, yapping lap dogs for individual candidates. And if enough bloggers succumb to the siren song of campaign cash, it will devalue the work of all of us, even those who are trying to do something transparent and altruistic by informing our readers of political issues that engage our interest.