Bloggers, Flacks, and Media Ethics Redux

Howie Kurtz weighs in on the bloggers and P.R. firms controversy that has the blogosphere (but judging from the dearth of comments, no one else) in a tizzy. He basically agrees with most of the bloggers who have commented on the story that running with stories from P.R. firms is a longstanding practice and not problematic unless one “runs the corporate spin verbatim, without disclosing the source.”

He does make a couple of noteworthy comments about bloggers and media ethics, however. His lede:

I knew a few days ago that the New York Times was planning a piece on big companies like Wal-Mart using friendly bloggers to get their message out.

The reason I knew this, of course, is that some of the bloggers posted preemptive pieces after the paper contacted them for comment. (I have very mixed feelings about that, since no reporter wants to get scooped on his own story because he’s trying to be fair by calling people. Welcome to life in the blogosphere.)

Indeed. If one is going to interview people who publish stories, quickly, on a regular basis then one needs to set forth ground rules ahead of time. For example, John Hawkins frequently does blogger surveys that he intends to post about after a certain deadline. He invariably asks that people refrain from discussing said surveys prior to his publication. So far as I am aware, that request has always been honored.

Kurtz agrees with Steven Taylor as to the real story:

What’s not in dispute is that what was once dismissed as a pajama-clad brigade is becoming increasingly influential, to the point that giant companies have to worry about what they say. Dell got tarnished, for example, when it dealt shabbily with Jeff Jarvis over his lemon of a laptop. [Update: Or Will Collier on Ford–and he didn’t even have a blog when he had the problems with Ford! -ed.] And as I reported the other day, the Pentagon has created a unit to seek good coverage and knock down bad coverage among bloggers.

The better bloggers are going to have to figure out their own standards for dealing with corporate and political flacks, and those that blindly carry water for outside groups will probably lose credibility over time. But I expect them to be in the minority.

That’s exactly right. Readers expect political bloggers to be opinionated and partisan but they expect honesty. Frankly, the source of one’s stories is generally not that important. What is crucial, however, is that the views expressed are those of the signed author, not some cause.

There are a handful of relatively prominent conservative blogs whose positions on an issue can always be counted upon to reflect the Bush administration’s view. The party line, rather than the writer’s ideology, are paramount. I have no interest in reading those sites, regardless of whether the propaganda is the amateur P.R. effort of the blogger or a regurgitation of the professional P.R. of party flacks. What’s the difference, really?

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, 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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. This all is somewhat like a soft porn movie star who is running for office make an accusation against he opponent.

    “What’s more, his daughter Alex is a self-admitted practicing thespian, and has even accepted money for public performances of such acts! Indeed, you can purchase videos of her public exhibitions of thespianism on certain internet websites, which modesty forbids me to link.”

    It may all be true, but when you don’t mention your own film credits, you are just left with a slander of doing what is legitimate and ignoring that you do it also. It may actually play well the remaining MSM readers who have not been exposed to acting as their own gate keepers to information, but it just draws a laugh to those who actually think about their news.

  2. John McAdams says:

    I’m the one who first published the story that Barbaro was working on this.

    I got an e-mail from him, and he asked that I not publish the e-mail on my blog. It contained no information about what story he was working on, but it was easy for me to infer what it was.

    I consulted with a colleague in the Journalism Department, who told me what I expected him to tell me: I was under no obligation to conceal the fact that Barbaro tried to contact me.

    And knowing that, I knew that Barbaro’s story was coming out.

    Had Barbaro not been working on an obvious hit piece I might have been tempted not to scoop him.

    If MSM reporters can report on us, we can report on them.

    Here is the post that broke the story.