Does money talk in the blogosphere?

By Mark Follman

Published January 19, 2005 1:17AM (EST)

For those of you who have been following the recent fracas over payola in the blogosphere -- including the Wall Street Journal's rather feckless attempt to equate two modestly paid political consultants for the Dean campaign with Armstrong Williams, who surreptitiously took nearly a quarter million dollars from the federal government to flog No Child Left Behind for the Bush administration -- Scott Rosenberg has a must-read post on his blog today.

Rosenberg says that until now he's refrained from comment because the debate "seemed like a minor inside-baseball dustup fanned by the right" intended to defuse the Armstrong Williams scandal. "The payments to Kos and MyDD were disclosed at the time; I remember reading about them; there's just no ethical equivalency. (Nor is there a financial equivalency: Total Dean payments to two bloggers appear to have been around $12,000, compared with $240,000 to Armstrong Williams -- and who knows how many other Bush payola plants still to be outed?)"

With the Armstrong Williams comparison properly tossed aside, Rosenberg weighs in on the continuing debate over the role, and accountability, of bloggers.

"In traditional professional journalism, these questions [of conflict of interest] are obviated by the interposition of the media company between the journalist and his paycheck. The media company collects cash from advertisers and readers, pools it and pays its reporters and editors. In ethical terms, you could describe the media employer here as a sort of money launderer -- by the time the dollars land in the journalist's checking account, they are supposed to have lost all the potentially compromising markings of their sources. A New York Times writer doesn't know which of his paycheck dollars came from Macy's and which came from the used-car classifieds, and so the provenance of his wherewithal cannot (theoretically) influence his work.

"In blogging, this buffer between dollar and writer vanishes. The best bloggers, understanding this, do everything they can to disclose their financial interests; this doesn't automatically grant them credibility -- that's earned post by post -- but it is a necessary precondition. It says, 'Here's what you should know about my interests as you consider what I have to say.'

"When categories get blurred and things enter a fast cycle of change, as has happened in today's publishing world, the central ethical principle -- the only ethical principle that you can be sure will apply in all cases as the ground shifts under you -- is disclosure and transparency."

Some disclosure and transparency: Rosenberg received a paycheck from Salon for a long time (duly noted in his post; he's currently on leave writing a book). And yes, we're officially biased here at War Room because we happen to think he writes incisive commentary well worth reading. You can get the rest of his take on the issue here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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