The WSJ fell into what I call the "lazy equivalence" trap in this story today about two bloggers who got paid as consultants by the Dean presidential campaign. The article seeks to connect these payments with the vastly more serious Armstrong Williams payola scandal, in which the Bush administration paid the right-wing commentator more than $240,000 to promote an education policy.
There's are differences, big ones. Such as: One of the bloggers shut down postings when he moved to Vermont to join the campaign, and the other prominently (on his homepage) disclosed that he was consulting. Williams and his backers did not disclose anything until USA Today outed his conflict of interest. And the Williams affair involved the White House itself, not merely a wannabe candidate for the office. You and I -- taxpayers -- got the bill for this sleaze.
(Glenn Reynolds writes much more on this, and makes some good points. He also links to all of the players, who respond to him and each other.)
The question of overall ethics is important, however, and we all need to focus on it.
I'd hope that bloggers wouldn't take these kinds of payments at all, at least if they're assuming a journalistic role. But disclosure is the absolute least that we need in this evolving culture; tell folks what's happening, as Kos was doing.
Of course, there are wrinkles to consider, including that old journalistic revenue standby: advertising. Suppose a blogger just takes the payment in the form of ads. How different is that?
In theory, advertising is transparent. The relationship is right in front of the reader/listener/viewer.
But there are obvious ways to game that system, too. I know of no rules -- in any media -- obliging people to disclose how much they're getting from a specific advertiser. (Publications have semi-pubic rate sheets, but as far as I know they aren't prohibited from taking more than what they've requested; someone please correct me if this is wrong.) As you see, this gets complicated fast.
News organizations have myriad conflicts of interest in other ways, such as when senior executives are members of local organizations that lobby governments on various issues. And as has been chronicled repeatedly by people like Jim Fallows, some big-time journalists routinely collect huge paychecks giving speeches on the corporate circuit. That's an ongoing scandal.
What's my policy? When I was at the Mercury News, our ethics rules wisely prohibited such payments (except when giving talks or instruction to journalism groups, which can't afford big fees in any case). Since leaving, I've agreed to give several talks to Silicon Valley companies about the topics raised in We the Media, which are of increasingly keen interest to the corporate world; I've concluded that it's still not appropriate for me to accept such fees even now, given my intention to keep doing journalism.