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January 07, 2005

BLOGGING ETHICS: Alarming News writes:

The story of Armstrong Williams allegedly taking cash from someone in the Bush administration to promote the No Child Left Behind Act is bizarre. I have no doubt that Williams truly supports the Act, but taking money for publicizing it without disclosing it seems very wrong to me. I agree with Jonah Goldberg that if the Clinton administration did this, conservatives would be outraged. This is no different.

I'm somewhat struggling with similar issues in relation to my work and my blog.

Read the whole thing. I've never had anybody offer me money in exchange for blog posts (bogus claims regarding Wonkette notwithstanding), but I have been offered substantial amounts of money to author opeds furthering the agenda of some people. I declined; even if it were an opinion I already held, undisclosed third-party payola just seemed wrong to me. I think the same thing's true for blogs, which is why I think that the DaschlevThune folks should have disclosed the money they got.

On the other hand, payola for opeds of the sort I describe above isn't so unusual that people should think the blogosphere is more likely to suffer from undisclosed payments than other areas -- something that the Armstrong Williams case illustrates, too, of course. I'm rather skeptical of the notion of some sort of Official Blogger's Code of Ethics, with blogs that sign on displaying the seal of approval. Kind of reminds me of the Comics Code Authority, and I'm generally skeptical of those kinds of ethics codes anyway.

I think that overall, the best protection against that sort of thing is for people to read a lot of blogs. Astroturf blogging is likely to ring false, and at any rate a blogger, however popular, doesn't enjoy the kind of quasi-monopoly position that a newspaper journalist or a broadcaster does, making efforts to shape the debate via sub rosa funding far less likely to be successful.

UPDATE: Jonah Goldberg notes an inappropriate response.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis has a thoughtful response:

He screwed up and it's all the more amazing because it would have been so easy not to. It's all about transparency.

Yeah. Ethical flaps are very often contrived, and -- as noted at great length here -- we should be as skeptical of those making (or contriving) ethical charges as of their subjects. But this doesn't seem to be such a case. Jarvis also offers some excellent advice for businesses wanting to use blogs for PR:

If a marketer wants to get consumers to try a product and talk about it, everyone should be transparent about that as well: Send out samples of the product and if people like it -- or don't or don't care -- they'll say so. If you have a good product, you'll win. If you don't, you'll learn. I, among many bloggers, now get publishers emailing me asking whether I'd like review copies of books (which would be great if I weren't so busy reading and writing blogs that I don't have much time for books anymore). If I write about a book I got for free, I should say so.

Hmm. I do get books for free sometimes, but though I've mentioned that in general I don't always mention that in all of the the posts (I use "in the mail" to indicate that it came unsolicited, usually, but free review copies are such a well-established custom that it seems implicit). Generally the nonfiction books come from publishers, and the fiction I buy myself, though there have been a few exceptions (e.g., John Scalzi's book). Sadly, nobody sends me samples of digital cameras, iPods, etc.; when I blog about my new Sony digital camera or whatever, it's one I bought myself. If people did send me samples, I'd certainly mention that.

But free samples aren't the big question; it's outright payola. There's a lot of that out there in the Old Media (usually disguised slightly in terms of free travel or gifts, but not always) -- much more than is reported on by the Old Media, or even by bloggers -- but we should try to limit it in the blogosphere. But the ultimate lesson is that you've got to make up your own mind. Every successful system attracts parasites, as Thomas Ray once said, and the blogosphere is a successful system.

On the other hand, some people are embracing payola. Reader Rick Horvath writes:

If you have not already been offered money to post on your blog since your post last night, how about I make you your first offer?

What would it cost to post something like:

"As a customer service to all the single women out there, I wanted to point out that there is a stunningly handsome (okay, the stunningly may be an overstatement), intelligent and funny 27 year old attorney working in the Philadelphia area by the name of Rick Horvath. Right now, he's looking for a similarly funny and intelligent woman who would enjoy port and classical music, especially opera. Ladies, grab him while you can!"

Instapundit personal ads... the wave of the future!

I don't think so, but consider this one a freebie, Rick. Good luck!

MORE: Further thoughts from La Shawn Barber.

STILL MORE: Eric Scheie has a rant that is both amusing and informative.

MORE STILL: Just noticed this post by Mitch Berg on blogging, credibility, and ethics that's relevant, though it predates the Armstrong Williams business.