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.