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We Don't Need No Regulation

Why bloggers don't need standards: They already have them.

- May 9, 2005

You know you've made it when the New York Times publishes a whiny cliché-ridden editorial about you. Ergo: Yesterday was a good day for bloggers.

On Sunday's editorial page, the Times' Adam Cohen took an impeccably spell-checked and copyedited stab at critiquing the ethics of the blogosphere by distinguishing them from the ethics of mainstream media (MSM.) And ironically, "impeccably spell-checked and copyedited" are the only two qualities that appear to distinguish his column from the commentary you'd find on most of the well-read blogs he attempts to criticize.

The mainstream media/blogger dichotomy is often a false one anyway, but I'm going to assume for the sake of Cohen's argument that it's not. And then I'm going to take that argument apart, line by line—as a blog would. We can even start with the headline:

The Latest Rumbling in the Blogosphere: Questions About Ethics

Is this really the latest rumbling in the blogosphere? Are bloggers up in arms about blogger ethics? Cohen argues (in the actual editorial) that they're not, and that it's a problem. Perhaps the essay would have been better titled, "The Latest Rumbling in the MSMosphere: Questions About Ethics... In the Blogosphere."

Bloggers like to demonize the MSM (that's Mainstream Media), but it is increasingly hard to think of the largest news blogs as being outside the mainstream. Bloggers have been showing up at national political conventions, at the World Economic Forum at Davos and on the cover of Business Week. Establishment warhorses like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. are signing on to write for Arianna Huffington's blog collective. And Garrett Graff, of FishbowlDC, broke through the cyberceiling recently and acquired the ultimate inside-the-Beltway media credential: a White House press pass.

Demonize, critique. Tomato, tomahto, as far as Cohen's concerned, which seems like an overgeneralization. I'm not sure that showing up at a national convention or Davos makes anyone or any publication mainstream, by definition, but he's correct to suggest that blogs have increasingly more reach and visibility.

It's also worth noting that while our own Garrett Graff is, in fact, a blogger, he was credentialed as a reporter, because that's what he was doing and there's no line of questioning in the credentialing process that distinguishes between reporting for a media outlet's blog and reporting for a media outlet's feature well.

Bloggers are not only getting access; they have also been getting results. The Drudge Report, of course, is famous for pushing stories, often with a rightward spin, onto the national media agenda, but it is not alone. Daily Kos did a brilliant job last fall of pressuring Sinclair Broadcasting not to show a hatchet-job documentary about John Kerry. And Joshua Micah Marshall has been rattling Congress with his entertaining and influential listing of where individual members stand on Social Security privatization. Blogs helped to shape, in some cases in major ways, some of the biggest stories of the last year - the presidential election, tsunami relief, Dan Rather.

Minor quibbles here: Matt Drudge has publicly and repeatedly denied that Drudge Report is a blog. And by most standard definitions—i.e., commentary in the form of posts, reverse chronology, permalinks—it's probably not.

And Josh Marshall is a blogger who also writes for mainstream media publications as a journalist. Journalist? Blogger? Animal, vegetable, mineral? Does Cohen have a litmus test for separating the two?

But the core point, presumably, is that bloggers are actually affecting current events, which has proven to be true in some cases.

The thing about influence is that, as bloggers well know, it is only a matter of time before people start trying to hold you accountable.

What makes Cohen think that this isn't already happening, and that it hasn't been happening since blogs first appeared on the Internet? No, blogs generally don't have paid fact-checkers and teams of lawyers to review copy. But the lack of formal institutional enforcement mechanisms doesn't mean that blogs have no accountability.

Blogs depend on their credibility to maintain readership. A blog with no credibility is a blog with no readers. And tolerance for losing reader trust is much lower for blogs than it is for mainstream media outlets. I was appalled by the Jayson Blair scandal, but as is obvious, I haven't stopped reading the Times. If a well-read and trusted blogger pulled the same stunt and got caught, it would be the end of the associated blog. The readers have no tolerance for it.

Bloggers are so used to thinking of themselves as outsiders, and watchdogs of the LSM (that's Lame Stream Media), that many have given little thought to what ethical rules should apply in their online world.

Who are these "many" who have "given little thought"? Is that a Lame Stream Overgeneralization or just Lame Stream Solipsism?

Some insist that they do not need journalistic ethics because they are not journalists, but rather activists, or humorists, or something else entirely.

Many people who publish in mainstream media as activists, humorists or something else entirely insist exactly the same thing.

But more bloggers, and blog readers, are starting to ask whether at least the most prominent blogs with the highest traffic shouldn't hold themselves to the same high standards to which they hold other media.

Again, Cohen neglects to name names. Who are these high-traffic bloggers who fail so miserably to meet journalistic standards?

Every mainstream news organization has its own sets of ethics rules, but all of them agree broadly on what constitutes ethical journalism.

If that were true, Poynter could dismantle most of its website and Jim Romenesko probably wouldn't get paid to blog. If everyone agrees broadly, why are junkets (which are almost never disclosed in mainstream media publications) okay for some MSM outlets and absolutely unacceptable for others?

Information should be verified before it is printed, and people who are involved in a story should be given a chance to air their viewpoints, especially if they are under attack.

All of the high-traffic bloggers I know, including several mentioned by Cohen—Josh Marshall, Ana Cox, etc.—attempt to verify information before reporting. And if they're reporting damaging information, part of the confirmation process invariably means calling the target of the damage. One procedural point that may differ is that bloggers who are making the requisite phone calls don't tend to add the usual ass-covering MSM disclaimers—"Mr. Doe could not be reached for comment," or "Mr. Doe did not return calls." Those things are implied.

If, however, Cohen thinks that negative opinion pieces warrant calling subjects for comment, the New York Times editorial board has some serious re-vamping to do. I see no comment from Ahmed Chalabi in this Maureen Dowd column referring to him as "double-crosser of America, purveyor of phony war-instigating intelligence." When Greg Beato at Wonkette says Cynthia Ore is "dressed like a wedding present from The Mustang Ranch" it probably constitutes an attack and not calling her for comment might be, in the most genteel of situations, rude, but is it unethical? No.

That said, when phone calls are made, the blogger's confirmation process is sometimes sloppy, and sometimes that results in reporting errors. The same could be said of mainstream journalists.

When bloggers make mistakes, they correct them—faster and in a much more direct fashion than most mainstream media outlets. At a Reuters event in New York a couple of weeks ago, Jason Calacanis, who runs Weblogs, Inc., was credited with saying that the "strikethrough" tag in HTML (which looks like this) was never really used prior to blogging. Now it's used to correct reported information that turns out to be inaccurate, and it's an open admission by the blogger that the information was inaccurate. By contrast, the supposedly more accountable New York Times issues corrections without referring to the title of the article or the reporter who bylined the mistake. Is anyone really going to take the time to find out to which piece a correction pertaining to "an article in the Education Life section" is referring? Doubtful.

Reporters should avoid conflicts of interest, even significant appearances of conflicts, and disclose any significant ones. Often, a conflict means being disqualified to cover a story or a subject. When errors are discovered or pointed out by internal or external sources, they must be corrected. And there should be a clear wall between editorial content and advertising.

In my experience, bloggers are much more vigilant about this than mainstream media. I've never heard a blogger express concern about how editorial product was going to affect advertising revenues. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about mainstream media.

And again, Cohen lacks examples. If this is actually a widespread problem, surely those examples exist.

Bloggers often invoke these journalistic standards in criticizing the MSM, and insist on harsh punishment when they are violated. The blogs that demanded Dan Rather's ouster accused him of old-school offenses: not sufficiently checking the facts about President Bush's National Guard service, refusing to admit and correct errors, and having undisclosed political views that shaded the journalism. Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, resigned this year after a blogmob attacked him for a reported statement at the World Economic Forum at Davos that the military had aimed at journalists in Iraq and killed 12 of them. Their complaint was even more basic than in Mr. Rather's case: they were upset that Mr. Jordan said something they believed to be untrue.

More Lame Stream Overgeneralizing. Cohen noticeably fails to mention the not-insignificant-and-possibly-even-larger blogger constituencies who thought it was ridiculous that Jordan resigned and the Rather bloggers who really just wanted a correction.

But Mr. Rather's and Mr. Jordan's misdeeds would most likely not have landed them in trouble in the world of bloggers, where few rules apply. Many bloggers make little effort to check their information, and think nothing of posting a personal attack without calling the target first - or calling the target at all. They rarely have procedures for running a correction.

Cohen made these points earlier in his columns, and I've already addressed them. Alas, annoying expository redundancy is, it seems, as much a feature of mainstream media as it is the blogosphere.

The wall between their editorial content and advertising is often nonexistent. (Wonkette, a witty and well-read Washington blog, posts a weekly shout-out inside its editorial text to its advertisers, including partisan ones like Democrats.org.)

That Wonkette writes a thank-you post to advertisers does not mean the wall between editorial content and advertising is non-existent. In fact, the Times business section reported yesterday that advertising does not influence editorial content at Gawker—unless I suppose, there's some concern that readers would mistake a post clearly labeled "Shout out to our advertisers" for reportage. (This "fact checking" of which Cohen speaks…does the New York Times have it? Maybe he should have called the Business section for comment.)

And bloggers rarely disclose whether they are receiving money from the people or causes they write about.

My inner conspiracy theorist thinks that it's perfectly rational to worry that some blogs are pushing products they're paid to promote, and my inner cynic says that everyone has a price. But are these highly trafficked blogs that worry Cohen likely to risk credibility and their readership to do that? Paid "fake" blogging is a recurring theme when I talk to public relations professionals, and the dominant line of questioning is, "Is it happening?" and then, usually in a lower voice, "How can I do it?" My answers are, "not that I know of," and "you can't—or not for very long, anyway."

Cohen fails to entertain the possibility that he's not seeing these disclosures because bloggers are not receiving money from the people or causes that they write about.

A few bloggers have begun calling for change. There have even been fledgling attempts to create ethical guidelines, like the ones found at Cyberjournalist.net. Defenders of the status quo argue that ethics rules are not necessary in the blogosphere because truth emerges through "collaboration," and that bias and conflicts of interest are rooted out by "transparency." But "collaboration" is a haphazard way of defending against dishonesty and slander, and blogs are actually not all that transparent. MSM journalists write under their own names. Someone would be likely to notice if a newspaper reporter covering a campaign was also on the campaign's staff. But it is hard to know who many bloggers are, and whether they are paid to take the positions they are espousing.

I defy Adam Cohen to name one high-traffic blogger who doesn't write under his or her own name. To review the list of people he namechecked: Arianna Huffington, Garrett Graff, Matt Drudge, Josh Marshall, Ana Cox, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga. I'm fairly certain that none of those are pseudonyms. And the perpetually iterative paid blogger question has already been addressed.

Richard Hofstadter noted in "The Age of Reform" that American reformers had been prone to an "enormous amount of self-accusation." Throughout history, reform movements have ostentatiously held themselves to higher standards than the institutions they attacked. The political reformers who took on Tammany Hall declared that they would not accept patronage jobs. Members of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union took a Temperance Pledge.

Many bloggers who criticize the MSM's ethics, however, are in the anomalous position of holding themselves to lower standards, or no standards at all. That may well change. Ana Marie Cox, who edits Wonkette, notes that blogs are still "a very young medium," and that "things have yet to be worked out." Before long, leading blogs could have ethics guidelines and prominently posted corrections policies.

A lack of formalized standards does not automatically translate to "lower standards" or "no standards." It doesn't mean that blogs have no ethics and no correction policies, either. But most blogs are the voice and work of individuals, and those individuals are no more likely to develop formal written guidelines and policies than any individual reporter is likely to do for him or herself.

Bloggers may need to institutionalize ethics policies to avoid charges of hypocrisy. But the real reason for an ethical upgrade is that it is the right way to do journalism, online or offline. As blogs grow in readers and influence, bloggers should realize that if they want to reform the American media, that is going to have to include reforming themselves.

Cohen's entire essay is based on the premise that bloggers inherently do journalism the wrong way. What he refuses to acknowledge is the blogosphere is organic and fiercely Darwinian. The liars, the cheats, those who would prostitute themselves for a high-CPM BlogAd—they don't stand a chance. One slip-up and their readership is gone, never to return.

But that editor who just placed a prominent advertiser in this month's front-of-the-book recommended list? That entertainment journalist who just agreed to forfeit sensitive questions to the next issue's cover celebrity in return for access? The newspaper staffer who was responsible for those precious column inches that got reappropriated for corrections? They'll live.

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor in chief of mediabistro.com. She was previously a journalist for a mainstream media print publication, and prior to that, a professional blogger. Now she does both.



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