Blogger Conference Calls and Journalistic Ethics
Steve Clemons is concerned with the proliferation of conference calls between Members of Congress and like-minded bloggers.
[I]t seems increasingly clear to me that those on the call — both the Member of Congress and the bloggers — are engaged in an informal collusion of interests. This may be too harsh a term. The Senators and Members look at bloggers as being co-participants in a political operation. The Members want to share their priorities and objectives with bloggers so that they can become the “noise machine” for the Dems. Some bloggers want to be NGO-like on one hand, advocating the Democratic Party’s line on some issue — while on the other, they want to be seen as journalists reporting on something they “got” from a Reid or Kennedy call.
In the case now, I think it’s fine that Senators or House Members annoint some “favored bloggers” as ones they want to reach out to, but the bloggers have an obligation to maintain some distance and objectivity in the process. Otherwise, the blogs will be seen as mouthpieces and noise machines of that Member’s operation, and as part of the “explicit” operation of a political organization.
If bloggers are positioning themselves to be the mouthpieces of a Member, then neither the interests of the Member nor the bloggiing community will be served. Any pretense of balance or even of credible, logical thinking will be undermined if Members of Congress view blogs as predictable appendages of their work and interests.
There needs to be polite distance, and all sides on these interesting calls need to respect the responsibilities they have in these debates about politics and policy.
Having participated in several of these calls myself, albeit on the other side of the aisle, I have had similar concerns.
Even leaving aside biases stemming from ideology, all but the most high-powered journalists have a conflict because of access. During his conference call with Republican bloggers, many of whom had already at least tacitly endorsed one of his opponents, Majority Whip Roy Blunt intimated that we should not write anything that we might regret should he get elected Majority Leader. Bloggers who are too critical of the Party message machine might find themselves without access in the futue.
Update: Here’s a transcription of Blunt’s remarks from Radio Blogger: “I think also for those of us who understand the agenda of the country is to move toward greater individual freedom, greater individual opportunity, and protection of the freedom we have, it’s important that we don’t do anything, I don’t do anything, hopefully, you don’t do anything that minimizes our ability to work together when this leadership race is over [emphasis mine].”
Certainly, a major reason for a Member to spend 20-30 minutes of their busy schedule on the phone with bloggers is to get a direct line to people they perceive as being more-or-less on their team. It is simply a different thing than talking to mainstream reporters. That’s especially true for Republican Members, who rightly perceive the mainstream press as inherently hostile, but true for Democrats as well. Reporters are naturally considered to be an adversary out to “get” them.
On the other hand, while bloggers are journalists, most of only dabble in being reporters. We’re mostly analysts or pundits and make no secret of our viewpoints. When I was covering the conference calls leading up to the Majority Leader race, for example, I made no bones about my leanings.
“Objectivity,” in the sense of pretending neutrality, is not something I aspire to. However, fairness is. I do my best to accurately describe what goes on at events I cover and to put quotes in their proper context.
When I get press releases from the RNC or a Member’s staff, I consider them on their merits. When I report on them, I let my readers know where they came from. And if I think they are being unfair to the other side–as they frequently are–I let that be known.
I do these things, not so much out of some code of professional ethics, but to build credibility with readers. I don’t promise that what I write here is unbiased; far from it. I do promise that it represents what I really think.
Update: Danny Glover notes that he has expressed similar concerns previously, noting that bloggers at a GOP event seemed starry eyed. That strikes me as a somewhat different issue, owing more to maturity than professionalism. Anybody granted access to the halls of power for the first time, whether a pajama-clad blogger or a junior reporter for the Washington Post, is likely to be a bit awestruck. The novelty wears off very quickly.