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January 16, 2005

Armstrong vs. Kos

Hugh Hewitt has a very detailed discussion of the Kos/Armstrong disclosure issue that's worth reading.

To me, this issue seems fairly simple.

Some have argued Kos' obvious partisanship made disclosure redundant; i.e., any reasonable person would assume he was in the pocket of the DNC.

That argument won't fly. It is not whether he is biased, but why he is biased that is at issue. When a blogger consistently writes pro-Dean posts, the two most obvious explanations are that he either genuinely supports Dean's platform or that he is a committed Democrat and thinks Dean has the best chance of putting his party in the White House. Both these obvious interpretations support the credibility and persuasiveness of his posts.

Knowing the blogger received $3000 a month from the Dean campaign has exactly the opposite effect: it undermines their credibility and persuasiveness, or at least forces the reader to stop and look at the content and reasoning more critically.

Looking at Kos' disclosure, he goes out of his way to play down any suggestion that his opinion is being bought. Contrast, then, what Zephyr Teachout maintains the Dean campaign thought they were buying (from Hewitt's post):

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.

Captain Ed mounts a limited defense of Kos:

As I see it, the only differences between the two situations mitigate the damage. Kos disclosed the relationship, and Jerome stopped blogging until the end of the election, being too busy with his consultancy. Some claim that Kos should have disclosed the relationship every day, but as a blogger myself, I know that's impractical at best, and would annoy the regular readers. (I'm not one of them; I still consider Kos despicable after his "screw them" comment about the butchered Americans in Fallujah.) As far as I'm concerned, he at least met the minimum ethical standard applicable, even if that seems to some a bit half-hearted. Besides, Kos is known for his connections to the Democratic Party as a fundraiser, so connections to major campaigns will always exist at Daily Kos. I assume it's part of the attraction.

The difference between Kos and Armstrong Williams is that disclosure, plus the money that Williams got came from the pockets of all taxpayers, not a political campaign. If political campaigns like Dean and Thune want to pay for propaganda sites on the Internet, that's a private matter. However, the US has laws against stealth-propaganda techniques like what the Education Department tried with Williams. What's more, the contract with Williams specifically called for Williams to write glowing reports about NCLB and get others to do the same, all while maintaining a pristine appearance. It's a deliberate deception on the part of government towards its citizenry for purely political purposes -- it's not as if national security was at stake -- and as such, we should all object to it regardless of ideology.

I have to take issue with one or two of his points:

First, while I applaud the fact that Kos disclosed the relationship in the first place, he clearly tried to play it down. It struck me as more of a "form for form's sake" exercise. Partisan readers (on either side) would likely disregard such a tepid disclosure.

Second, on the question of whether one initial disclosure was enough, just how hard would it have been to link to that disclosure at the end of every single Dean-related post? He could have saved off a boilerplate disclaimer and pasted it at the end of each post. Readers do not scour sites looking for disclaimers, and often miss even things posted in the sidebars. I know this for a fact, because part of what I do for a living is to evaluate user interface issues on the web and in the applications my firm develops. You'd be amazed at how much information the average user screens out or never notices at all.

He does get full marks for the placement of the disclosure. Placing it at top left was as prominent a position as he could possibly have given the link. On the other hand, the text: "Disclaimer: I do some technical work for Howard Dean.", by its very brevity argues for his having included it on his Dean-related posts.

With something as important as a disclaimer, merely posting it in the sidebar or a one-time disclosure post is not enough.

I agree with Hewitt on this one: if you seriously intend readers to see such a notice, it must be posted frequently, openly, and prominently.

That said, I think Kos handled this better than Armstrong. But I can't get beyond this: as a matter of personal integrity, accepting money from a political campaign is a conflict of interest, and Zuniga should have refrained from posting on that subject to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Failing that, a link to the disclosure should have been posted on each and every Dean-related post.

That was the ONLY way to ensure that every reader saw it. It's just not that hard, and a brief, one-sentence disclaimer would not, with all due respect to Ed, "annoy readers". If they're that easily annoyed, they have serious issues.

End of story.

In an interesting aside, Cranial Cavity wonders why the press sat on this story for so long before going public with it, and notes the interesting timing in relation to the release of CBS's RatherGate report:

Given the fact that the Freedom of Information Act had been invoked in relation to the Ketchum/Education Department contracts back in October, why did it take three months for the Armstrong Williams mess to come out? Because the elite media and their friends at the People for the American Way (PFAW Williams press release) knew a storm was brewing over the CBS scandal. They held on to the Armstrong Williams story, sat on it, until it served a useful purpose for their associates in the established media at CBS. Through USA Today the story was disclosed a mere one business day before the CBS internal investigation was released, the timing for which media insiders surely knew quite well. By doing so they rationalized turning attention away from the CBS scandal.

Posted by Cassandra at January 16, 2005 07:44 AM

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» Kos On Jerry Springer's Payroll Too from Ohio Voter
What Dean managed to accomplish was not lost on Springer, whose longtime friend and political consultant Mike Ford worked on Dean’s campaign. Springer hired two of the masterminds behind Dean’s Internet strategy, Jerome Armstrong and Mark... [Read More]

Tracked on January 16, 2005 09:39 AM

» Kos On Jerry Springer's Payroll Too from Ohio Voter
With all the discussion lately on Kosgate and Kos being paid by the Dean campaign, this nugget was casually dropped in an editorial entitled Springer's blog gives him edge in the new world of politics by Michael Meckler in the Columbus Dispatch today... [Read More]

Tracked on January 16, 2005 09:45 AM


Three thousand bucks a month for "some technical work?" Uh huh. What was he doing, managing Dean's server? Truthfully, whether a blogger was getting paid to write favorably about a candidate makes little difference. So what if the guy got paid to chant the Dean theme? He's under no obligation to disclose his bias because he's not pretending to present "the facts." Blogging is about commentary and opinion, not about trudging around in a trenchcoat interviewing survivors/homeless/voters/police/etc. and reporting "the facts." And by the way, how much did Kerry spend on political advertising on CBS?

Posted by: spd rdr at January 16, 2005 10:14 AM

Linda Chavez made that same point about Armstrong Williams; he is not a journalist - he writes editorials.

I agree he had no legal or formal requirement, that's why I couched my statement the way I did, "as a matter of personal integrity".

The problem with throwing stones at others (as Kos did) is that they tend to return fire. Personally, I see little difference between bloggers and Op-Ed types - they both opine as opposed to journalists like CBS who are supposed to cover the facts.

But if you intend to be taken seriously when you opine, any conflicts of interest should be fully and prominently disclosed to your readers.

They are reading your work to get your opinions; therefore anything (like a $3000/mo payment) that touches on the objectivity of your opinions (i.e., that they're possibly not your genuine opinion, but have instead been bought) goes to the heart of what you do and should be disclosed.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 16, 2005 10:28 AM

When Kos took the dough he engaged in advocacy, not opinion. Advocacy is by definition not objective. Granted, the line is a fine one, and it's hard to tell the difference when reading a hit-piece by Krugman or Frank Rich, but beyond damaging his own credibility, I see no harm done. Dean lost. Big time.

Posted by: spd rdr at January 16, 2005 12:18 PM

I am open to taking payments, but I have a different policy. Payments don't mean I will endorse you or your positions, it just means I will refrain from attacking you......as long as the money keeps flowing.

You can call it protection money....I don't care, as long as it ends up in my account.

Posted by: Pile On® at January 16, 2005 12:18 PM

When Kos took the dough he engaged in advocacy, not opinion.

Granted, then the issue becomes (or has always been, IMO) is it ethically acceptable to pass off advocacy as opinion?

And, for that matter, what is the difference between what he did and what Armstrong did?

(1) They are pundits. As such, one expects their writings to consist primarily of opinion, with facts perhaps included to underscore their point. However, no one reasonably expects a complete lack of bias - they are allowed to be partisan.

(2) Since the coin of the realm is opinion, the reader (hopefully) has a right to hope that coin is, at the least, not counterfeit. Taking money for dispensing opinion (especially if you say that once they took money they ceased to opine and became advocates) creates the appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest. The informed reader now knows a critical fact that would greatly influence the amount of weight the reader assigns to the opinion.

The uninformed reader, however, is relying on the erroneous presumption that he is reading the actual opinion of the pundit. One thing (advocacy) is being passed off as another (opinion). If the Dean campaign did not think this had value, would they have paid him twice the going rate for his services?

In forming my opinion on this, I asked myself what I would have done. Would I have posted a disclaimer on each and every post? Probably not.

ON THE OTHER HAND, I would not have taken money from the Dean campaign, so the decision point would not have arisen. I would have felt (instinctively) that doing so would give readers on both sides the right to discount anything I said on the subject.

I could not take their money in good conscience while fully disclosing, because that defeats the purpose of the payments.

I could not opine without disclosure, because that betrays any trust my readers might place in my integrity.

Simple decision.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 16, 2005 12:50 PM

And if you really believe no harm was done, ask yourself, how would all of you feel if you found out I had been taking money from the Bush campaign?

You would doubt, not only everything I had written heretofore, but also anything written by any other obviously pro-Bush bloggers.

So I think there is harm.

I also think (frankly) this is a tempest in a teapot.

But if Kos is going to try to apply a standard to Williams, it is not unreasonable for his actions to be subjected to similar scrutiny. The crowing over this is, largely, misplaced on both sides.

No one is even asking the fundamental question: exactly what is wrong with the White House using the media to get their message out?

Is it illegal? If so, the Clinton administration was guilty of it to a far greater degree.

Is it unethical? Why? It seems to me that the problem here has always been lack of disclosure, not the White House's use of the media.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 16, 2005 12:56 PM

"Well," he said, repeatly mashing the blog Princess'hot button, "using the public fisk to advance a political agenda has some ethical drawbacks."

Posted by: spd rdr at January 16, 2005 02:06 PM

Oh my... who was that aimed at?

I hate it when you say things that I could take one of several ways.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 16, 2005 02:25 PM

1. Democrats idolize the memory of Jefferson. 2. Jefferson did everything he could possibly do to control the press.
3. Bush and Armstrong did exactly what Jefferson and some in the press of his day did. 4. All things considered, the Democrats should be idolizing Bush.

Posted by: RIslander [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 16, 2005 02:50 PM

If you want to take money from the man, that is fine, but don't be surprised when people view you as a paid puppet of the man. If you want your opinion to be respected as independent, then be your own man and don't take money from the man.

Cuz, if you take the mans money, you answer to the man.

Posted by: Pile On® at January 16, 2005 04:22 PM

"I am open to taking payments.....You can call it protection money....I don't care, as long as it ends up in my account." - Pile On

When the going gets paid for, Pile On can really pile it on!!!

Seriously, how many people "lie" about who is subsidizing them. I can't forgive Armstrong Williams for taking money to support a position that he would have backed anyways, but who else out there has taken some kind of 'compensation' to forward a politcal point. Peabody awards, Pulitzer prizes, etc.
Big Clue (get out the clue bat): See where Mary Mapes ends up after her departure from CBS.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at January 16, 2005 07:05 PM

Pile On,

The Man says cut it out, or you will be docked on weeks pay.

Posted by: KJ at January 16, 2005 10:56 PM

"I do some technical work for Howard Dean" just plain doesn't cover it.

Posted by: HH at January 18, 2005 07:10 PM

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