Journalists think blogging makes everyone one of them, but not everyone wants to be a journalist. That’s the lesson from a long-running discussion among prominent political bloggers that spilled into the pages of the Friday Wall Street Journal. The Journal’s lede: “Howard Dean’s presidential campaign hired two Internet political ‘bloggers’ as consultants so that they would say positive things about the former governor’s campaign in their online journals, according to a former high-profile Dean aide.” The “high-profile aide” is Zephyr Teachout, the former head of Internet outreach for Dean. Teachout earlier this week blogged on the subject of “Financially Interested Blogging.” She wrote, in part, “In this past election, at least a few prominent bloggers were paid as consultants by candidates and groups they regularly blogged about.”
Teachout named two prominent bloggers in particular: Jerome Armstrong of myDD.com and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos. “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,” Teachout wrote. “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.” In the past, Teachout has also fingered Matthew Gross for writing about Erskine Bowles while Gross was on the candidate’s payroll.
Armstrong and Moulitsas have complained vociferously on their blogs about Teachout’s post and about the Journal’s story, and they have a point: Armstrong quit blogging for the half-year that Armstrong Zuniga, the two men’s political consulting firm, was on the Dean payroll, and Moulitsas posted a somewhat grumpy disclosure on his site’s front page during the same period. If the two men were journalists, those disclosures would be woefully insufficient. But Armstrong and Moulitsas aren’t journalists. Nor does having a blog make someone a journalist.
The word “blogger” connotes enthusiastic amateurism, but nowadays bloggers can be PR flacks, salesmen, and yes, party hacks. The New York Times Magazine’s cover story on the liberal blogosphere discussed Moulitsas’ awkward place in “the established machinery of the Democratic Party” and noted that the Dean campaign “in fact employed Moulitsas for several months.” In April 2004, the Weekly Standard called him “a Democratic political consultant on the make.” In December 2003, USA Today noted that “some candidates have hired him as their Web consultant.” Despite all this, the Times Mag somehow convinced itself that Moulitsas was one of the “amateurs” on Dean’s “thrill ride.” NBA ballers get to play in the Olympics now, but calling Moulitsas an amateur shows how far the standards have fallen since the days of Jim Thorpe.
Still, my verdict is to let Armstrong free with a slap on the wrist. Joe Trippi’s hiring of Armstrong because of MyDD.com was one of the most-reported anecdotes of the primary season. What’s new is Teachout’s revelation that the Dean campaign hired Armstrong because they wanted him to give them good blog, not because they wanted his sage political advice. But Armstrong didn’t know that, so it’s tough to be too hard on him for it.
Moulitsas is a different case. He’s never pretended to be a journalist—this past October, he told National Journal, “I am part of the media. But a journalist? No. If I had put a label on it, I would say I am an activist.”—but in the year since he stopped cashing Dean’s checks, he’s gained a reputation as “the liberal Instapundit” and the most popular left-wing blogger. And while it’s true that his role as a Dean consultant was disclosed and reported in the press on multiple occasions, it came as a surprise this week to a whole lot of people, including a lot of prominent bloggers. Perhaps more important, the people who were aware of Moulitsas’ consulting work aren’t 100 percent comfortable with it. “Markos is infamous for these kinds of issues. That may be too strong a word. But it’s come up with Markos before,” Nicco Mele, the Dean campaign’s Webmaster and director of Internet operations, told me. “I can find you threads on Markos’s own site about it.”
Moulitsas’ crime isn’t taking money from Howard Dean. He, too, can get away with a suspended sentence for insufficiently disclosing his role in the Dean campaign once he was off the payroll. The hanging offense is that Moulitsas took money from other, undisclosed, political clients. And while he may have disclosed—in 2003—that he wouldn’t disclose them, that’s not good enough. DailyKos raised money for a dozen congressional candidates this past election. Which, if any, of them paid Moulitsas for the honor of directing his grassroots minions to part with their wallets? If you gave one of Moulitsas’ preferred candidates money, wouldn’t you like to know if Moulitsas’ endorsement was purchased?
Political campaigns and consultants are becoming increasingly skillful at manipulating the mainstream press by planting stories in the blogosphere. Despite this, the mainstream press remains credulous about blogging. During South Dakota’s U.S. Senate race between Tom Daschle and John Thune, the Thune campaign put two local political bloggers on its payroll. One got $27,000, the other $8,000. Their anti-Daschle reports trickled up into South Dakota newspapers.
The lesson for a campaign is obvious: Got a story you can’t convince a mainstream reporter to run? Leak it anonymously to a blog on your payroll. Then get a local reporter to write a story on the controversial, gossipy, local political blog. Soon everyone in town will be talking about the story you leaked to the blog. Voila! Eventually a mainstream news organization will run a story on the rumor that “everyone is talking about.” Or they’ll do a “what people are buzzing about on the Internet” piece. And no one will know that the blog post was a paid placement until after the election.
If Moulitsas takes money from political candidates in 2006 and 2008 without telling you who’s paying him, stop giving his recommended candidates your dollars. Here’s what Moulitsas wrote about payola pundit Armstrong Williams’ assertion that “There are others” on the government dole: “Until names are named, we can assume every conservative pundit is on the White House’s payola rolls.” That’s questionable logic, but let’s take Moulitsas up on his challenge: Until names are named, we can assume every Daily Kos candidate this past election wrote him a check for his consulting work.