Bloggers in Amsterdam: A Case Study in Media Ethics

A few days ago, Justin Abbott of BlogAds emailed asking whether I would be interested in going to Amsterdam for five nights as part of a promotional tour. The conditions were pretty straightforward:

In exchange for the trip, each blogger will a) be interviewed by someone (a blogger or Blogads) about their trip (the Dutch Tourism Board will have the right to use some or all of the interview for online and offline promotions), b) give Holland.com one month of premium adspace to be used at their discretion through June 1, 2006, and c) put a “Bloggers in Amsterdam” logo in your nav bar to disclose the nature of your trip.

After working out some logistical details, including arrangements to take my wife along at my own expense, I agreed.

Danny Glover (no relation, as far as I know, to the actor) thinks this is a violation of journalistic ethics:

Bloggers of all stripes love to bloviate these days about public officials who accepted money or luxurious treatment from corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff in his attempt to curry government favor for his clients. But that doesn’t mean bloggers are above accepting pampering by people with an agenda.

For the latest evidence, check the list of 25 bloggers who are headed to Amsterdam next month courtesy of Holland.com, the Internet presence of the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions, and the advertising firm BlogAds. Americablog, Ezra Klein, Outside the Beltway, Pandagon and TalkLeft are among the public-affairs-oriented blogs that will be represented on the weeklong junket.

[…]

Bloggers no doubt will justify the trip by highlighting the transparency of the junket. For one year, they must link to the Bloggers in Amsterdam disclosure statement, which itself notes the transparency “mantra.”

But curiously, the bloggers just started talking about the trip yesterday — and not all of them are doing so yet. If they really wanted to be transparent, why didn’t the bloggers tell their readers about the trip when the invitation was extended?

In my case, I hadn’t written about the trip before now because 1) I only agreed to go Thursday night, 2) the dates of my trip are not yet finalized, and 3) I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to read about it. Mostly number 3.

It’s true that I have at least obliquely criticized congressmen for accepting perks from people with business before their committees. The reason is obvious: the perception that their votes on important matters of public policy are up for sale.

What exactly is it that the bloggers going on this trip are “selling”? Basically, it’s an exchange of advertising space for plane tickets and a hotel stay. It’s a win-win for both sides. The retail cost of the air fare and hotel accomodations is roughly three times that of my monthly advertising rate. However, the Tourism Board is presumably getting those things comped (Amsterdam is a lovely place but not a popular February vacation spot), so it’s essentially free advertising.

Furthermore, it’s unclear to me why accepting a trip in exchange for advertising is more likely to compromise my ethics than taking money in exchange for advertising. Media outlets ranging from the New York Times to Joe Schmoe’s Blog routinely accept advertising from those they may potentially cover, whether it be corporations, political candidates, or tourist destinations.

What’s more, transparency is not sufficient justification for media outlets — and that’s what blogs want the U.S. government to call them — to accept favors from an agency with an agenda. Bloggers rightly maligned columnists Armstrong Williams and Doug Bandow for taking money from the Bush administration and Abramoff. Now some of the them are guilty of similar arrangements with the government of Netherlands, and they deserve the same scorn.

I did indeed take Williams, Bandow, and others to task for taking money for the express purpose of lending their reputations to causes paid for by their benefactor without disclosing that conflict. In this case, however, the bloggers are neither required to write anything about Amsterdam and are required to disclose the nature of the trip.

I have written 11,630 posts since starting OTB. Fewer than twenty of them mentioned Holland*, almost all in the context of debates over the shape of the European Union. The only slightly controversial post focusing on Holland was on the murder of Theo van Gogh.

No one who makes the trip is compelled to write one word, good or bad, about Amsterdam, and maybe some bloggers will return home and say nasty things about the place. But somehow I doubt they will.

It may well be that, as a consequence of visiting Amsterdam, I’ll write some nice things about Amsterdam. It’s not likely I’ll write much about it one way or the other. OTB isn’t a travelogue and I keep the personal stuff to a minimum because that’s not what you’re here for.

Will I write “nasty things”? Probably not, unless I’m really annoyed. But then I’m spending hard earned vacation days from my day job going on the trip because my preconception is that I will like Amsterdam. It’s not a fact finding trip; it’s a getaway.

My friend Mark Tapscott writes that, “Sooner or later, bloggers have to address these kinds of ethics issues, just as the mainstream media folks have been doing for decades.” I suspect that, over the strenuous objections of prominent bloggers like Jeff Jarvis, we will. The Media Bloggers Association–of which I am a board member–and others are working to do that.

The task will be more complicated than merely adopting standards that have evolved for professional reporters, however. While bloggers are journalists in the broadest sense of the word, we are also entrepreneurs.

I gave myself the title “Editor-in-Chief” mostly as a tongue-in-cheek play on the masthead pages of print opinion journals, where even kids right out of college are “editors” of some stripe, when OTB became a group blog and not just my own writing. There is, however, some truth to that title. In reality, I am not only the chief writer for the site but also the publisher, advertising manager, circulation manager, human resources director, and IT manager.

Because we wear so many hats, there is some balancing. I take advertising and accept free review copies of books, both of which are standard in the press–but usually handled by different people. Moreover, as Glover notes, bloggers are increasingly being wooed by politicians and others hoping to gain sympathetic coverage. The same is true of mainstream reporters, too.

Ultimately, however, readers will have to judge the results from themselves. You can rest assured that OTB will continue to feature the same level hard-hitting, no holds barred coverage of Netherlands tourism that you have come to expect over the last three years.

*A search of the archives for Holland yields 23 results, several of which were false positives from Americans named “Holland” or “Mulholland.”

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, OTB History, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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.

Comments

  1. fhdjfn says:

    It’s great to see you getting a piece of the Dutch government’s socialistic largesse! Make sure to eat a bunch of stroopwafels, visit the Rossebuurt, and smoke some dope at a coffee house.

  2. Herb says:

    James:

    I am rather shocked that you accepted this Holland Trip. However, perhaps you have never been to Holland and are unaware of what you will see and hear from the Dutch.

    I have been to Holland many, many times and there are several things I could tell you about Holland and the Dutch people.

    First, What they don’t want you to hear will be communicated in their native tongue between themselves.

    Second, Be careful of the difference between that they tell you and what they really think.

    Third, Most Dutch dislike Americans with a passion. For example, Thier schools teach their students that Americans do not believe in any environmental standards like we here in America dump raw sewage into our streams and rivers. And, that is but one example. Another, We Americans are greedy because we like big cars and homes. There are many more.

    If you want to have an enlightening, While there, go to a meat market and price a whole ham. You will be shocked. When you tell them what the price in America is for the Whole Ham, They will not believe you.

    While you may not agree with the above, I know what I am talking about. I have had dealings with them for years and for want of better words, Don’t Trust Them.

  3. Doug says:

    Hey, enjoy your trip!!!! I’m jealous!!!!!!

    And, don’t let them run ads for their hash palaces or weed seeds on your site.

  4. fhdjfn says:

    herb! Great satire, my man!:

    First, What they don’t want you to hear will be communicated in their native tongue between themselves.

    The bastards! Speaking in their own language in their own country. Stupid foreigners! U bent een volledige idioot, Herb!

    Thier schools teach their students that Americans do not believe in any environmental standards like we here in America dump raw sewage into our streams and rivers.

    You must not be from San Antonio–where sewage has been pumped into the Edwards Aquifer for weeks. i hope you havent been swimming in Colorado’s Fountain Creek. Or Sonoma Creek in California! You probably don’t live in the Dogwood Dells subdivision in Fairhope, Alabama either. or near the Rouge River in Oregon!

    Raw sewage dumping can be found all over the country and it is a product of lax environmental standards and a crumbling infrastructure–something you won’t find in the Netherlands to the same degree as the US.

    U eet riolering voor ontbijt, stomme Amerikaan!!

  5. G A PHILLIPS says:

    dang’ James, my burnout friends(believe it or I not I was once a burnout)will never believe that writing about the truth all day could take someone to heaven.

  6. Herb says:

    fndjfn:

    You must be a dutchy:

    Your comment is typical of prececely what I was talking about. Perhaps you didn’t read my comment very carefully. What I said is that the Dutchys often talk about you and lie to you in front of youf face, then say what they really mean in their own language behind your back. In other words, they are untrustworthy and your comment to me in dutch prooves my point exactly.

    Yeah fndjfm, you are a typical hate America dutchy. If you live here in America, that also is typical of a dutchy over here because he can not make it in Holland.

  7. quixote says:

    So, now that conservative types have been caught taking bribes and selling the *content* of their reporting, suddenly everyone has to work entirely for free or they’ve been touched by filthy lucre and are unclean. Personally, I hate advertising, but being paid for it is not exactly unusual. These people really couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag, could they?

    I lived in Holland for years and have to weigh in on the mini-flame war going on. Herb, you mention the “comment in dutch,” but I’m not sure how much translating something like “idioot” really needs. In my experience, that’s exactly how much lying the Dutch do: they’re some of the most straightforward, honest people I have ever come across. Part of the reason the country is so wildly successful in business (shipping, banking, food, the list is very long) is because of their reputation as honest brokers. The Dutch also have what is to Americans an unimaginably high social consciousness. We figure we’re only dumping a little bit of sewage in our many rivers. They figure any sewage dumping is a disgusting outrage. (As you might guess, I’m with the Dutch on that one.) (By the way, fhdjfn, it’s “rioolering” isn’t it?)

  8. fndjfn says:

    You must be a dutchy:

    No, Herbie, I am not a “dutchy”–although James will probably be partaking in a dutchie or two when he is in Amsterdam.

    I have just studied Dutch and if you knew anything about the history of YOUR OWN language you would be aware that the Jutes who invaded England in the 5th & 6th century AD spoke a dialect of Frisian which owes much of its grammatical structure and vocabulary to Old Dutch. Frisian crowded out the indigenous languages of England primarily by pushing the locals into the god-foresaken parts of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

    Basically, without the Dutch, you would be speaking some second rate Celtic language right now.

  9. G A PHILLIPS says:

    Herb, how could dare to take a swipe at a country with a “unimaginably high social consciousness”. I’m sure it’s a hate crime. Hey, maybe that’s where the writers for Star Trek got the Borg from? I guess if that’s what sheltering rapist-murders and allowing your citizens to destroy their lives with prostitution and drugs is all about. Yes, God must be smiling upon this country. P.s. Lucky, if your out there, I don’t judge anybody, and i believe in the freedom of speach, and i wish this country was run like Starship Troopers but it’s not.

  10. Herb says:

    fndjin:

    And, the Dutch would be speaking German if it were not for the sacrifice of American lives in WW11. By the way, were it not the Dutch “people” themselver who turned Ann Frank over the Gastapo.
    Like I said before, never trust tha Dutch.

    GA phillips:

    I speak only from years of experience with dealing with the Dutch. Have you ever been to Holland or dealt with the Dutch.

    quixote:

    If you lived there for 11 years, you didn’t learn much did you?

  11. dutchmarbel says:

    Quixote: in actual fact it is riool & riolering since dubble o is a long o in Dutch and at the end of a syllable the o is automatically long 🙂

    I am confident that James can make up his own mind about the country and it’s population. Though I love my country dearly we are far from perfect so it depends a bit on whom he and his wife meet too. And of course ‘honest and straightforward’ can quite easily be felt as ‘rude and impolite’ if one is used to less outspoken communication. On the whole it is safe to assume that Dutch people say what they mean and mean what they say – with rarely a double bottom or hidden meaning.

    Herb: we have a saying “zoals de waard is vertrouwd hij zijn gasten”, which translates as “as the innkeeper is, he trusts his quests to be” (you measure other people’s cloth by your own yard ?).

    And mr/mrs Phillips: if we have to be one of the Star Trek stereotypes it would be more Ferengi than Borg I’m afraid 🙂

    James: Februari is likely to be cold, so inside things are a better choice than outside things. If you tell me what kind of things you and your wife like, I’ll be glad to mail some recommendations. I hope you have a nice time. Be aware that Afghanistan is kind of a hot item here at the moment: we are discussing wether we want to send more troops to the south or not.

  12. Digger says:

    Screw all those people saying you shouldn’t go. Bunch of jealous ass bastards. It’s not like you’re being hired to be their lackey for 6 months of Dutch promotion.

    I woulda snapped it up in a heartbeat… damn you Henry Copeland, why didn’t you think of your old pal Digger?!?

  13. Herb says:

    dutchmarbel:

    I judge others by the way they are and not by what you think should be the standard. Your “saying” does not have the whole truth in it. I have had dealings with many, many dutch companies and the people associated with those companies over a period of many years. While it is true that there are those who have the utmost in business ethics, there were many more that would lie to you at the drop of a hat. I found that those who have never been to the US do not believe you when you tell how things are here in the US, (Prices you pay for goods and services, the size of your home, the car you drive, as well as most things we have here and take for granted. The common phrase there is “I know all about America” while in truth they know very little. It seems that they have a mentality of “I am superior to you” and you are nothing because they have culture. I used to laugh at them for thier stupidity. At any rate, I think you know precisely what I mean and your “excuses” for their impolite and untruthful attitude shows.

  14. Steven Plunk says:

    I don’t know who the person is posting about the Rogue river but I am presently less than five miles from it as I post.

    Polluted? Wherever you are getting your information you should recheck it. The rogue is about as pristine as it has ever been. Salmon, Steelhead, and Trout are abundant and river recreation is booming. The Rogue is fine.

    I guess environmentalist like to spread rumors about mankind’s pollution. Say it often enough, loud enough and pretty soon it’s taken as fact. Unless someone happens to know the facts.

    As for the Dutch, I don’t know and don’t really care. I doubt they care about me very much either. The original post seemed to be a query about the ethics of accepting the trip. Given full disclosure of the conditions attached and motives surrounding it I can see no convincing argument against it.

  15. fndjfn says:

    I don’t know who the person is posting about the Rogue river but I am presently less than five miles from it as I post.

    Dude, I don’t know where in the world you are, but I live in Shady Grove (Jackson County) and I would suggest that you call Mike Curry, the director for Emergency Management for the County. He’s been quoted all over the news as saying thousands of gallons of raw sewage have flowed in the river during periods of extreme weather and this is primarily due to chronic problems with the city’s waste treatment facility.

    Actually, Mike is going to be presenting some data on the extent of the problem in tomorrow’s work session for the Board of Commissioners. They meet @ 9:00am in Medford. AFter the torrential rains late last month, the county has finally realized they need a Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan. I would encourage you to go there tomorrow and ask Mike yourself, if you don’t believe it.

  16. fndjfn says:

    I live in Shady Grove (Jackson County)

    WHoops! Make that Shady COVE! All this talk of Amsterdam has got me reaching for the dutchie this afternoon!

  17. Steven Plunk says:

    In response to fndjfn, the county emergency management director is blowing smoke to get funding.

    The “periods of extreme weather” are few and far between. The recent rains have not precipitated any of these sewage overflows and we are well over 180% of normal.

    This is not an ongoing problem of pollution flowing into the Rogue.

    I’m on Table Rock Road just south of the river.

  18. I live in Amsterdam, been here six years. Still here. Terrific place for living and doing business, with many of the same pluses and minuses you find just about anywhere.

    I’m not Dutch, by the way, but a Brit. Whoops, not an American, Herb. Sorry about that.

    Anyway, given that this post is about an ethics issue and not about Amsterdam or NL vs anything else, I’d just like to add my two Eurocents worth by saying I really cannot see where there is any ethics issue given the open and detailed disclosure about the trip.

    Looking forward to your take about Amsterdam and reading what you have to say.