January 13, 2005

BLOGFLUENCE: Here’s something from Zephyr Teachout that I didn’t know:

In this past election, at least a few prominent bloggers were paid as consultants by candidates and groups they regularly blogged about. . . .

On Dean’s campaign, we paid Markos and Jerome Armstrong as consultants, largely in order to ensure that they said positive things about Dean. We paid them over twice as much as we paid two staffers of similar backgrounds, and they had several other clients.

While they ended up also providing useful advice, the initial reason for our outreach was explicitly to buy their airtime. To be very clear, they never committed to supporting Dean for the payment — but it was very clearly, internally, our goal. . . . Imagine Howard Dean hiring Maureen Dowd!

Somebody tell Oliver Willis! Meanwhile, apparently, I’ve missed out on yet another gravy train. (Thanks to Ed Cone for the tip).

UPDATE: Here’s Kos’s disclosure post, sent to me by a reader who thinks it’s inadequate. I’m not so sure, but the interesting disclosure to me is the one above, about what the campaign thought it was doing by hiring Kos, rather than what Kos thought.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Tim Blair has thoughts.

MORE: Jeff Jarvis has much more on this subject, including this observation:

The campaign used these guys. The campaign knew that. But the bloggers didn’t. The bloggers thought their wisdom was being sought out; they were paid to consult. No, they were paid to market, to flack.

Read the whole thing, which is about culture and trust. Meanwhile, Markos sends this email:

The problem with Armstrong Williams is two-fold: 1) he did not disclose the arrangement, and 2) he was paid taxpayer dollars. If Williams wants to be paid by Scaife or any other right wing think tank or funder, then It would be whole different matter.

The problem with Zephyr is that she fails to note that Jerome and I (mostly Jerome) set the Dean campaign on the path of blogging and MeetUps. Jerome had the first Dean site up on the web, the first Dean-specific blog, set up MeetUp for them, and was the catalyst for the netroots pro-Dean movement. THAT’S why we were hired by the campaign, to offer more such suggestions. Given that our relationship was with Trippi and not Zephyr, I’m not sure what jealousies or internal politics we ran afoul with Zephyr.

Note that Jerome quit blogging after he joined their campaign (at a time MyDD got more traffic than Daily Kos), so if they were paying for favorable blogging from us, that didn’t quite work out. Remember, he was the biggest Dean booster online. Instead, he worked as their Director of Internet Advertising. As for me, I disclosed the arrangement and had a link to that disclosure post up on the site for the entire duration of the arrangement, even though we were being paid essentially for Jerome’s work, not for anything I was doing.

So 1) I disclosed the arrangement, and 2) I didn’t take taxpayer dollars. If this isn’t enough to satiate you and other critics, so be it. But really, I’d like to hear what more you’d think was appropriate.

In any case, given that Daily Kos is self-sufficient now, I quit the consulting biz. Though I reserve the right to go back in if I want to help a candidate I believe in, with full-disclosure as I did before.

And Jerome emails:

I was on blogging hiatus during the time I worked on the Dean campaign getting paid, Aug to Dec, 2003. Actually on hiatus from much earlier to much later.

As I say above, I’m not actually convinced that Kos or Jerome did anything especially wrong here — not withstanding my tweaking of Oliver Willis, who seems a bit overexcitable these days — but the dynamic with the campaign interests me. I think that Jeff (and Zephyr) are right that the issue is a cultural one more than a legalistic or formally “ethical” one. I don’t want a Code, which people will promptly lawyer to death. (Trust me on this one). I want attitudes and norms.

On the other hand, Kos may want to be a little embarrassed about writing this. Or at least a bit slower to take that kind of tone in the future.

STILL MORE: In response to my comment just above, Kos emails:

What’s your point here? The administration is using tax dollars to pay conservative pundits (and crazy amounts at that). Williams says there are more. Until people own up to who is on the take, I’m willing to assume they all are.

Why that should be embarrassing is beyond me.

Indeed.

The point, however, is that Kos is being treated rather more generously above than he’s treating others (and, I suspect, more generously than he would treat me were our positions reversed, though I hope I’m wrong about that), and yet he is happy to presume the guilt of, basically, everyone who disagrees with him. I could just as easily ask how many other lefty bloggers (since Zephyr says there were more, too) were on campaigns’ payrolls, and pronounce the entire lefty blogosphere suspect.

YET MORE: Zephyr Teachout posts an update in a separate post:

This has to do with OUR motives, not some contract, and no compromise on their part. Instapundit gets it right — this is about the market that’s created.

Furthermore, I’m not claiming that Kos didn’t have a disclaimer — he did, we’ve talked about this for over a year, there’s no revelation here. I don’t think the disclaimer was what I’d like to see, and I really wish he — and every other blogger/consultant — had an easy to find, prominent client list of all clients at all times.

But this isn’t about Kos or a few thousand bucks, and its certainly not about a $240,000 contract to shill for the federal government. As one commenter said, c’mon, that was wild west days — this will all calm down.

My interest–and where our focus needs to be, whether you’re a little green football or a kossack — is in collectively building a culture online where we figure out norms for people who both consult and write online so that readers can have the tools to be skeptical, active participants.

I’d like to see that, too. And Kos emails to say that I’m wrong, and that he wouldn’t jump on me if the situations were reversed — in fact, he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with what the DaschlevThune bloggers did. We disagree about that; I think they should have disclosed.

Anyway, in the interest of getting some reader feedback on these issues, I’m opening comments for a while, until the trolls or the spammers get out of hand, anyway. Your comments on how these things should be handled — civil and free of unnecessary point-scoring, please — would be appreciated.

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