Blogger payola?

Election season usually means better ad rates for bloggers and other on-line enterprises (and TV, radio, and newspapers as well), as demand for space increases and prices bump upward.  In a tough economy like this, campaign cash flowing into the system is good news indeed to people struggling to keep their heads above water.  For some, though, the money apparently provides too much temptation to go a little farther than just selling advertising, as the Daily Caller reports:

Katie Couric once described bloggers as journalists who gnaw at new information “like piranhas in a pool.” But increasingly, many bloggers are also secretly feeding on cash from political campaigns, in a form of partisan payola that erases the line between journalism and paid endorsement.

“It’s standard operating procedure” to pay bloggers for favorable coverage, says one Republican campaign operative. A GOP blogger-for-hire estimates that “at least half the bloggers that are out there” on the Republican side “are getting remuneration in some way beyond ad sales.” …

One pro-Poizner blogger, Aaron Park, was discovered to be a paid consultant to the Poizner campaign while writing for Red County, a conservative blog about California politics. Red County founder Chip Hanlon threw Park off the site upon discovering his affiliation, which had not been disclosed.

Poizner’s campaign was shocked to learn of the arrangement, apparently coordinated by an off-the-reservation consultant. For Park, though, it was business as usual. In November 2009, for instance, he approached the campaign of another California office-seeker — Chuck DeVore, who was then running for Senate — with an offer to blog for money.

“I can be retained at a quite reasonable rate or for ‘projects,’” Park wrote in an e-mail to campaign officials. In an interview, Park defended himself by claiming, “nobody has any doubt which candidates I’m supporting,” and noting that his blog specifies which candidates he “endorses.”

But while Red County’s Hanlon expressed outrage at Park’s pay-for-blogging scheme, questions arose about his own editorial independence when it emerged that Red County itself had been taking money from the Whitman campaign.

For the record, I’ve never been approached for a scheme like this, nor has it ever occurred to me to put my credibility up for sale.  Of course, I’m also paid (and paid well) to write for Hot Air, which makes it perhaps a little too easy to get sanctimonious about this issue.  Still, I didn’t always do this for a living, and during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, my previous blog was a struggling business enterprise like most everyone else’s. Not only did I not even contemplate it, I wasn’t aware of it occurring at all among my peers.

This seems to have the same problem of scale, too.  The Daily Caller has a few data points in its article, but they all seem to be connected to California campaigns.  I’m not sure that this translates to a wide problem, but if so, it could be very damaging.

In the radio and television industry, this would be called payola, and it occasionally erupts into scandal.  Broadcast services are regulated by the government, and payola can lead to loss of broadcast licenses — which is why radio and television stations fire anyone even suspected of it.  In the film industry, though, no one thinks twice about “product placement” any more, even though it’s essentially the same thing, giving certain products sympathetic placement for buckets of cash.

Fortunately, blogs aren’t regulated by the government, at least not yet, but it’s stories like this that will give rise to demands for government to take action.  The Federal Election Commission has repeatedly hinted at imposing onerous requirements on bloggers that will create legal burdens too expensive for most to meet.  The hook will be undisclosed relationships with campaigns that turn blogs in effect into coordinated third-party efforts, and that could result in hefty fines for both the campaigns and the bloggers.  But the larger impact will be to discourage political blogging at all, as the cost of defending oneself from the inevitable complaints will be so high (even for the majority who are innocent of any such connections) that people just won’t bother to enter the market at all.

Even beyond that, though, it’s simply dishonest.  Plenty of bloggers get involved in election campaigns, and they make those connections clear by disclosing them o their blogs.  Deliberately failing to do that — and to market one’s blog as a paid outlet for politicians — puts people into Armstrong Williams territory.  It saps credibility and damages the ability of the blogosphere to effect political change in the long run.

Update: Dan Riehl responds to his inclusion in the story:

I devoted hours and hours of my own time over a period of months trying to coordinate an effort involving many top bloggers and the RNC to improve communications and legal, legitimate cooperation in a partisan sense. I stress that, as it was the RNC that made me aware of certain FEC restrictions, which we were careful to not violate. That’s why money wasn’t involved. I made phone calls, took meetings, paid Metro and lunch costs, all out of my own pocket because I am dedicated to improving the blogosphere in an ethical manner – as well as winning politically for Republicans at the ballot box. I won’t name which top bloggers were involved, but there are many that could vouch for these facts if they wanted to. If they want to stay out of it, that’s fine, too.

If I had done it as a consultant, I’d likely have charged in the tens of thousands of dollars. I didn’t. When all was said and done, the RNC asked me to write up a concise document based on the knowledge that was discovered from the process. It’s called knowledge transfer, actually. I promptly disclosed to all involved bloggers that I had a chance to make a few hundred bucks for doing that, and only thatand I was taking it, if there were no objections. If they had any objections, none were conveyed to me at the time. So, see, it never really was a secret. It was so insignificant, especially in light of the many, many hours of non-paid, volunteer work I had done in the effort, it never even occurred to me to disclose it on my blog. It was simply insignificant as compared to the larger non-paid effort.

The inclusion of Dan in this story looked to me like a non-sequitur anyway.  The story was about bloggers who take money to write hagiographic posts about candidates, not provide consultant services to organizations.  A lot of bloggers do the latter, while only a few do the former, or at least we hope.  Consultants should disclose those connections (which Dan apparently did), but that’s not payola by any stretch of the imagination.

Update II: Stacy McCain has a pair of responses to this story.  His inclusion in this story made even less sense than Dan’s; all Stacy suggested was that Republican candidates might want to advertise on friendly blogs.  That’s hardly earth shattering advice.