Saturday, January 15, 2005

Journalistic Ethics

Maybe there should be a conference or sumthin. From Laura Gross at DFA:

I know many of you have questions so I wanted to give you the full story. I am sorry I have not responded sooner, I have been traveling all day with Gov. Dean and I'm in St. Louis now. Thank you for your messages and e-mails . . . here's the full story:

So I got a call Thursday from the Jeanne Cummings, The Wall Street Journal reporter who covered the Dean campaign. By all accounts, she did a fine job -- covered all aspects of the campaign, even met the Web team and wrote a long story on their work. She was calling, she said, on behalf of some of her paper's reporters in Boston who were looking into a story about the campaign and the blogs.

She said she thought she knew what was going on, and we talked "on background" so she could "just clear things up once and for all" -- that is, not for attribution. By the end of the conversation she had confirmed what she thought -- that there was no news, that this was what she called a "dead story" -- and said that she didn't think there would be any article at all, much less one that mentioned Dean. She said that if for some reason she needed a quote she'd call me back.

Next thing I know there appears in the WSJ an article so sloppy and so inaccurate that I spent the morning trying to track Jeanne down to find out what happened. She called me back at 10:30 a.m. -- and actually apologized for the article (written by two colleagues). She said that she wouldn?t work with those reporters in the same capacity again, would only give them on-the-record quotes and assured me that she had notified her editors.

Jeanne's colleagues committed a journalistic no-no: they took her background conversation with me and made up a quote from "a Dean spokeswoman". Their fake quote had this spokeswoman apparently admitting that the bloggers were paid for promoting the campaign. They completely mischaracterized our conversation -- and Jeanne was rightly upset about it. I was, and am, too.

Since a distorted version of the conversation has been put in print, I'll tell you what was told to Jeanne when she asked what the story was with the campaign and these bloggers.

I said that, as many media outlets noted at the time and a giant disclaimer on their blog said, these guys were hired as technical consultants. Specifically, they helped the Web team pick a technology platform for the blog (Movable Type) and helped manage Internet advertising (banner ads, Google ads, etc.). They weren't paid to write content -- either for the campaign or on their own blogs. And just in case there was any ambiguity, the campaign made sure they had a notice saying "I am a paid consultant for Howard Dean" right smack on the front of their personal blogs.

The only people the campaign paid to write blog posts were full-time staff at headquarters who wrote the content here on Blog for America. They and the rest of the staff at headquarters were people who quit their jobs and upended their lives to work 100 hours a week for a campaign they believed in -- and frankly, compared to "normal" jobs, the campaign barely even paid them. Had the campaign been throwing around cash to people just to write nice things on blogs, there would have been a mutiny in Burlington.

The point was also made that, besides being not true, this kind of accusation is in fact the exact opposite of the truth. Hundreds of thousands of people gave their time, money and hearts to the Dean campaign; all they wanted in exchange was their country back. They organized in their communities and they organized online, and many of them blogged every minute of it.

Some people even made the trip to headquarters -- on their own dime. They stuffed envelopes by day and slept in motels or on someone's couch by night -- and they blogged that too. To suggest that there was some network of paid advocates, as some of the more irresponsible outlets have done, disrespects one of the best things to happen to our democracy in a generation.

Jeanne's colleagues not only misrepresented my conversation with her, they also made a sloppy and completely ridiculous analogy to the Armstrong Williams scandal -- an analogy that has been snapped up and repeated ad nauseum by both lazy journalists and the right-wing media machine.

Here's the deal: the campaign paid these guys with private funds to do work that did not include writing content or otherwise talking/writing about the campaign -- and widely disclosed the relationship at the time anyway, just in case. The Bush administration used taxpayer dollars to pay Williams to lace his commentary with praise for a certain policy -- and both the administration and Williams covered it up. Also, it appears that what they have done is illegal.

No journalist with any integrity would be writing about these things in the same story.

I don't think I've ever met Markos, and I've met Jerome, but only briefly -- if the blogs or the media want to debate with them or about them, they can go right ahead. But they can leave us out of it. Because when it comes to Howard Dean and his presidential campaign, this is exactly what the Wall Street Journal's Jeanne Cummings called it as we hung up the phone: a dead story.