Disclosure: I recently wrote a diary at DailyKos in which I called for more disclosure from political bloggers of their political affiliations (consulting, advertising, etc.) in order to maintain credibility in the eyes of our readers. Some DKos members, Armando chief among them, detested my post. So I’m disclosing my rather heated interaction with him so that anyone reading this may place what I write below in that context.
One of the commenters on the diary which I cross-posted here noted that Armando, who is an anti-trust attorney, has Wal-Mart as one of his clients. Let’s leave aside our personal feelings about Wal-Mart since it isn’t really relevant to the point I want to make here. But Armando’s profession and its interconnection with his political blogging raise interesting ethical issues.
James Joyner at Outside the Beltway published two interesting posts on Armando’s ‘outing’ by the NRO. The only part of his post that I want to relate to is his discussion of issues of disclosure for political bloggers. To his credit, Joyner has thought long and hard about the issues for himself (much harder than Armando judging by the quality and tenor of his remarks in the comment thread for my diary):
In my own case, my affiliation with the Defense Department is mentioned in my About section and I write about defense issues, routinely, without mentioning it in a separate disclosure. I only disclose it as a potential “conflict” if I’m writing about the program or agency employing me (which is almost never) or the issue of contractors working for the federal government (maybe once or twice in the history of the site). Regular readers know that my wife is a VP at a polling firm that does work for numerous Republican candidates. I typically only disclose that if I’m criticizing the work of a competing polling firm or lauding one of their candidates (I say nothing if I’m criticizing one of their candidates, as I frequently do). That satisfies my sense of ethics on the matter;
I wondered why Armando came down so hard on me regarding my diary accusing me of being a “troll” and of attacking Kos’ good name merely because I suggested that all political bloggers should prominently disclose any relationships which might cloud their credibility with their audience. Could Armando’s hostility have something to do with the scrutiny he’s received both from the right and left blogosphere over his own professional affiliations? And if it did, isn’t there a great big dose of hypocrisy in his anger at my so-called attack on Kos (an attack in his mind and the mind of the Kos acolytes only). I think it may be important to take Armando’s criticisms with a great big grain of salt because in cases like mine I think he’s the pot calling the kettle black.
I should make clear that I don’t have a problem with a political blogger/attorney representing corporate clients and writing about those clients in the context of one’s blog. I don’t have a problem with Kos taking money from political advertisements on his site or even if he chose to resume consulting (which he has said he has no plans to do). Not as long as you do what James has done by disclosing those relationships prominently and regularly when relevant. So I have a pointed question for Armando: will you reveal your corporate affiliations whenever you write about clients and major legal issues for which you represent them? If not, why not? He says he’s never written about his corporate clients. Fair enough. But when he writes about anti-trust law at Daily Kos but doesn’t reveal he is an anti-trust attorney representing corporate clients doesn’t that potentially undermine his credibility? And let’s even give the benefit of the doubt and say that for this particular post disclosing corporate affiliations wasn’t necessary. But how can he be so sure that this will always be the case? Let’s throw out an example: Microsoft is a corporate client and you write about intellectual property issues at your blog without mentioning the company at all. Disclose or don’t disclose? I would. But whether or not you would, I hope my readers can see that this can become a tricky issue. Perhaps your views about intellectual property as expressed at your blog are entirely independent of your Microsoft relationship. Perhaps they’re not. Isn’t it better to err on the side of caution and disclose?
MaryScott O’Connor has also contemplated the conflict of interest issue regarding accepting paid political ads at one’s blog. She writes:
My Left Wing does not now, nor will it ever, accept paid advertising by individual politicians, be they campaigning or sitting. Any ads you see for such individuals is advertising freely offered by me, Maryscott O’Connor, as the proprietor of this blog, as a campaign donation.
In case it needs further clarification: I do not ever, EVER want to be in the position of having accepted advertising revenue from a candidate whom I might later be in the position to criticise — because I may not have the fortitude to follow through with the criticism, if the politician in question is a source of INCOME for me.
This is the kind of thoughtful anticipation of ethical issues which I call for from all political bloggers. I should add that I also don’t accept paid political ads (not that one has ever been offered!) from candidates.
Returning to Armando’s ‘predicament,’ I don’t want to make this out as if I feel absolutely black & white about this issue. There are good reasons to disclose & there are also good reasons not to. But the good reasons to disclose appear, at least to me, to revolve around maintaining high standards for our blogging. While the good reasons not to involve protecting our professional lives as lawyers, journalists, bloggers or whatever. If you want to be a political blogger you should be prepared to disclose. If you’d rather protect your clients & your relationships to them then you shouldn’t be blogging or shouldn’t be blogging about issues for which you might appear to have a conflict of interest.
I also don’t want to be too much of an absolutist about the issue. This blog has nowhere near the influence nor viewership of Daily Kos. I am no star of the blogosphere. Advertisers are not banging down the doors to plaster my sidebar with ads. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Kos or Armando. There must be great pressures and responsibilities that I’ll never face. I don’t know how I’d react if I were in their shoes. But as Maryscott O’Connor wrote in her post, I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they face their responsibilities squarely and willingly. That’s why I’d like to believe that they spend time considering the issues that James Joyner, MSOC and I raise. I’d like to but dare I believe it given how sharply Armando attacked my diary’s premise?
I write this not out of animus to political bloggers on the left (after all I AM one). I do this because the right (in the form of people like the NRO journalist who outed Armando) are out there gunning for us. If we anticipate what they might use against us & pre-empt them then we only strengthen our own message. Not to mention that there is an actual ethical consideration as well. I think people like Armando do themselves and all political bloggers a disservice when they sweep the issue under the rug.
I think you raise important points. I think one thing that others may be reacting to (may, I haven’t a clue) is that your call for disclosure requires that bloggers…the lowly bloggers mocked by the MSM (stupid term, but handy) to be far more above-board, ethical, and clean that all of the talking heads, pundits, and others that are on TV all the time.
No disclosures from “political consultants” about who they are actively working with or have worked with (I’m looking at you Carville, especially when you say unflattering things about “your guys” opponent). The Republican talking heads are absurd…they do their actual consultant work on-air without disclosure and it is sickening, and wrong.
With that in mind, however, dKos is about fighting to get Dems elected. I don’t know if deciding to play the game as is instead of raising the ethical level has been a conscious choice. If not, it should be, and that fact should be disclosed.
Two more things. I think. One is, dKos is adamant about being about winning, not ideology. You can see where this attitude plays into the point above. Second, it seems pretty clear that questioning this stance is going to get you a lot of vitriol…in comments and also the short posts kos puts up every now and then telling people to shut up and not challenge him on specific issue. He’s an activist, dammit! (that’s me imitating him). Red state dems get kid glove treatment on cultural issues, blue states don’t. It is an interesting thesis, I think it has some merit. It should, however, be discussed.
Finally, some disclosures are improper, either legally or ethically. However, they are easily overcome with some commons sense approaches. I do not reveal who my clients are (I’m a lawyer) because that is considered confidential by them (and sometimes the law). This may be the case in other situations (even in the case of some political consultants, who might be on “background” or on orders not to let people know they are working for Mr. X). However, if I were to ever pen a piece for public distribution arguing about the evils of the insurance industry, I would note that I often sue insurance companies, and that putting caps on awards would make me mad, and poorer. Same for any other issue. I don’t have to name names, I can express my general sympathies and how those sympathies bolster my income (and, ergo, my point of view has a possible, even probable, economic component). This would be more difficult of political types, but it sholud be. If you trash Dean in a public forum and are being paid by his opponent, you should mention it.
So, if you are paid by Wal-mart and address an issue that affects Wal-mart, some disclosure is in order. However, if you are paid by a corporation and have comments about corporations in general, or unrelated legislation, or whatever, I don’t see the need for disclosure. For example, if you get paid by Wal-mart, but have something to say about net neutrality (assuming this isn’t your schtick), then your connection to one type of corporation isn’t germane to your discussion of others (giant evil retailer as opposed to giant evel telcos). If it is germane, then just mention it.
Anyway, good thoughts, keep it up.
Richard Silverstein says
All terrific points. Maybe you should publish this at Dkos? Unless that is you’d rather avoid flame wars.
But I do have a question for you about Armando’s situation. If Wal Mart is a client and he wishes to write about say, national health insurance, saying that in the current environment employers are footing more than their fair share of health insurance costs (not that he would argue this, it’s just an example), how does he disclose this? Does he say something like: “I am a corporate attorney who has among my clients companies impacted by this issue.” THen of course the next question is would he make such a disclosure?
Good point of clarification. My short (and trite) answer would be, where there is an apparent, or at least a self-known connection, disclosure is the best option. I am with you on the idea that more info is better. Your quote is a pretty good example of the type of disclosure that is appropriate “my clients are impacted by this (truncated)” but I would add “it is to the benefit of my clients that I take this position, which I do.” Of course, benefit to clients generally means benefit to person representing clients.
I go round and round with this with my doctor friend. He wants caps on damages, I don’t. I freely admit that my interest in full compensation for injuries caused by doctors is based on my law practice (even though I don’t do medical malpractice, the idea of full compensation is something that is applicable in all kinds of law). He admits that he doesn’t like high insurance premiums (which are unrelated, but I’m trying to convince him of that). In short, we both admit our interests and then we can have a very contentious debate that involves fundamental principles, ideas of how society should work, what it means to be a victim, what should or can be compensated with money, what it means to be sued, etc. We both don’t pretend that our points of view are abstractly arrive at, and this is a good thing for encouraging debate, and yes, a greater appreciation of the issues and interests at stake.
I’m pretty sure that you and I agree about this. With that in mind, what do you think about trying to be cleaner than the other guy when it seems like the dirty players always win?
Have a good one.