In a controversy almost too complicated to describe, The New Republic attacked Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas for asking his supporters not the dignify the report that Jerome Armstrong, founder of MyDD and ally of Kos, was subject to an SEC investigation with a response. The political hatchet men at TNR and Slate’s Mickey Kaus have had a field day with histrionic overstatement in attacking Kos’ alleged “silencing” of his supporters. The entire story reeks of being a non-story kicked until it feebly attempted to raise its head off the ground.
In my opinion, the NY Times’ political blog, The Opinionator, has captured a far more important issue not directly mentioned elsewhere. He notes that Kos and Armstrong have been paid political consultants for various candidates (Mark Warner and Sherrod Brown among others) whom they’ve both covered and endorsed in Daily Kos. While Kos has made clear to his readers that he’s done consulting, he hasn’t featured his disclosures so prominently and clearly. Though Opinionator author, Suellentrop seems to attach more devious intentions to Kos’ actions, I don’t. But there is a conflict of interest in accepting money from a campaign which you endorse in your blog. Unless you clearly note the financial relationship, you are asking for lots of trouble and lost credibility when the news comes out. And even if you do acknowledge it to your readers, how do they know to what extent your endorsement has possibly been “bought” by the consulting arrangement?
After the 2004 election, it was discovered that Republican John Thune had surreptitiously paid several Republican operatives to create anti-Daschle blogs which were supposedly written by political independents. The thought that a candidate could so rig the political debate as to potentially throw an election disturbed me and the NY Times enough that they wrote about it. In my post, I proposed several suggestions that might aid political bloggers faced with dilemmas like Kos’:
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.
Those who read Slate have seen prominent disclosure notices which indicate the site is owned by the Washington Post whenever the Post is featured in a story. This is the type of full disclosure which I think the political consulting issue warrants for political bloggers.
In light of The Opinionator’s new information, I think it’s incumbent on Kos and all liberal political bloggers to adopt a code of conduct when it comes to our relationship with political campaigns. If we want to maximize our influence on political debate we can’t afford to have our message compromised by such ethical doubts in the minds of the public.
One of my major criticisms of The Opinionator is that he breathlessly covered Kos’ alleged misdeeds without acknowledging any similar Republican misdeeds within the blog world like the Thune outrage I mentioned above. Kos’ actions don’t even come close to the unethical conduct of Thune. Republicans, in fact, have brought this type of deceptive blog conduct the fore first with far more egregious ethical lapses. But that doesn’t mean that Kos shouldn’t face the music and try a new tune as far as full disclosure and transparency goes.