Blogger Ethics: The Church-State Wall

Steve Rubel has an interesting piece about the fact that, unlike our mainstream press counterparts, bloggers do not have a “wall” that divides the editorial and business sides of our operation. That draws plenty of criticism from corporate media members and arouses some reasonable questions about conflicts of interest that Steve explains nicely.

Aside from bloggers who work for someone else, these concerns are inevitable. Most of us simultaneously own the business and write most of the content. We’re, in essence, self-syndicated columnists. In addition to being the primary writer and editorial director of OTB, I’m also the business manager, publicist, IT director, human resources department, chief cook, and bottle washer. Even if the business side grew enough that I farmed some or all of those tasks out on a day-to-day basis, I’d still be owner-operator and have an interest in both the business and editorial direction of the site.

The good news is that bloggers operate in a low trust environment. Readers don’t come to OTB or InstaPundit or PoliBlog or Unqualified Offerings or what have you because we present an Objective View of All The News That’s Fit To Print but because we provide interesting arguments. Each post stands on its own merits based on the quality of the argument and sources provided to bolster our views.

At the same time, we build a relationship with our readers over time. If my views on an issue suddenly change radically and without explanation, as if I were a Massachusetts governor suddenly running for the Republican nomination, regulars will rightly wonder what’s going on.

As I’ve noted before, I take pretty much any and all ads. I’ve had simultaneous BlogAds running for three different candidates for the Republican nomination. Hillary Clinton, PETA, and George Soros have run ads here. I’ve got a giant banner ad atop the site right now and I’m frankly not even sure who’s running it. Unless the ad content itself offends me, I’ll run just about anything.

Do I hold back on criticizing political candidates or causes who might buy ads on my site? Not consciously, certainly. Hell, I’ve written posts making fun of ads that were running at the time. On the other hand, it’s probably the case that people living in an ecosystem will make decisions based on that fact. Bloggers are reluctant to criticize A-list bloggers on their side of the aisle for fear of losing out on links from them and the resulting traffic, for example.

Ultimately, readers will have to judge the editorial integrity of their favorite blogs for themselves.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Economics and Business, Media, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    as if I were a Massachusetts governor suddenly running for the Republican nomination,


  2. Tlaloc says:

    I think your take on the matter is correct. I would caution you to disclose any arrangements that have an affect on editorial content so as not to disrupt that trust.

    I have a particular example in mind. I used to read both Greenwald and FDL quite frequently. Then the whole matter came up about Kos-Armstrong and it came out that they shared an email list that they had not previously disclosed and that as part of this list they apparently made at least recommendations about editorial content (in this case Kos specifically asking fellow bloggers not to write about the topic).

    While I don’t think the actual kos-armstrong matter was much more than a superficial hit piecce I found that that trust I had for Greenwald and Hamsher had evaporated. I don’t read them now. Period.

    Not because they don’t have anything worth hearing but because I keep having to wonder if what they say is what they mean.

    Greenwald particularly as a prosecutor should have known better than to give such an appearance.

  3. Tlaloc says:

    oh I should have added: and if they had just stated up front that they had this network I would have been fine with it, it’s that I had to hear about from outsiders (and it turned out to be true). Once you know somehting has been hidden you can only guess at how much else has.