Armstrong Williams, Kos, Spirit of America, & Blogger Ethics

You can tell there’s a hot topic at Instapundit when Glenn Reynolds actually opens up a post for comments.

In this case, there’s a little blowback over the whole Armstrong Williams debacle for Kos who got sanctimonious over the whole thing and in effect said that until it was revealed who else — if anybody — the White House paid off, that…

“…we can assume every conservative pundit is on the White House’s payola rolls.”

Unfortunately for Markos, he looked a little bit foolish after this post from Zephyr Teachout saw the light of day…

“In this past election, at least a few prominent bloggers were paid as consultants by candidates and groups they regularly blogged about. . . .

On Dean’s campaign, we paid Markos and Jerome Armstrong as consultants, largely in order to ensure that they said positive things about Dean. We paid them over twice as much as we paid two staffers of similar backgrounds, and they had several other clients.

While they ended up also providing useful advice, the initial reason for our outreach was explicitly to buy their airtime. To be very clear, they never committed to supporting Dean for the payment — but it was very clearly, internally, our goal. . . . Imagine Howard Dean hiring Maureen Dowd!”

Now given that Kos disclosed that he was doing work for the Dean campaign and that there was no explicit agreement to give Dean positive coverage, did Kos do anything wrong? Honestly, I don’t think so.

I mean would anyone expect Kos to bite the hand that’s feeding him and trash Dean while he’s taking consulting fees from him? Of course not….and the Dean campaign knew it.

Along the same lines, why do you think the Bush campaign asked Rush Limbaugh to be an unpaid consultant for them? Sure, they wanted to get his advice, but have no doubt that they were also hoping to flatter him enough to mute any criticism he might aim at them. Punditry and blogging is full of those sorts of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” type of deals.

For example, take the right side of the blogosphere’s favorite charity, Spirit of America. While they do good work, they certainly don’t have the name recognition of say the Salvation Army or the Red Cross.

Yet, I bet you that over the last year or two they’ve been linked more than any other charity by conservative & libertarian bloggers and they’ve had enormous success raising funds through the blogosphere. Heck, here at RWN I bet I’ve linked them a dozen times over the last 12-18 months either on the main page or in the daily news section.

Why is that?

Well, when SOA first hit the scene, they spent a few months buying Blogads and along with those ads came name recognition, goodwill on the right side of the blogosphere, and bloggers hoping to acquire more lucre from SOA in the future. So even when SOA stopped buying blogads, they still got enormous amounts of attention and positive coverage from the people they spent money with.

Is there something nefarious or unethical about that? Not at all. In fact, it was a brilliant strategy that I guarantee you has paid off many times over for Spirit of America.

There’s really not that big of a difference between what the Dean campaign did with Kos and what the SOA guys did on the right side of the blogosphere. Both of them paid money for a service, but as an extra-added bonus, got a lot of positive coverage out of it.

Where Armstrong Williams got in trouble was by not properly disclosing that he was taking money specifically to support “No Child Left Behind.” Had he simply done NCLB ads or informed his audience that he was being paid to promote the program when he did so, even though it’s something he believes in anyway, there would have been no ethical issue for Armstrong Williams.

It’s just not the same situation for Kos who disclosed his relationship with the Dean campaign and was not paid to promote the Dean campaign…

*** Update #1 ***: I’ve had a couple of people ask in the comments section if Rush was really an unpaid adviser to the Bush campaign. Actually, I can tell you definitively that he was because I remember hearing him make the announcement on the radio. Moreover, it was posted on his website. Here’s a mirror of the original post (which has since been removed) from the lefty site Buzzflash….

“I made an official announcement to open the program today. I have become, and have been for a while, an official, unpaid advisor to the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign, and we decided to go public with this because there’s no problem with it whatsoever.

There was thought about my stepping down from the Golden EIB Microphone two or three days a week on the days that I was giving advice, but we decided not to do that. There’s no conflict here. There’s absolutely no conflict whatsoever. The line has been successfully blurring now for years and years and years.

I will not be giving up my precious seat behind the Golden EIB Microphone. I will continue to serve both functions with credibility on both sides, an official unpaid advisor to the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign ’04, as well as your host here on the EIB Network.”

*** Update #2 ***: In the initial post, I was defending Kos against charges of impropriety in his work with the Dean campaign and I still stand by that.

However, I did not want to leave the impression that I think that there’s nothing to be concerned about here. This part of his disclosure statement is actually troubling…

“But for the record, I will not discuss my role within the Dean campaign, other than to say it’s technical, not message or strategy. I will also not discuss any of my other clients, including their identities (I have non-disclose agreements to which I must adhere).

Some of you may be upset, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I have to make my living, and if I can do so helping Democrats win elections, I can’t imagine anything more exciting and fulfilling.”

Basically what Kos is saying here is that he could have conflict of interest problems every bit as bad as the ones Williams has, but he’s just not going to reveal them to his readers. At the very least, Kos should come out and say that he has never talked about any of his clients with whom he has non-disclosure agreements and that he pledges never to discuss them. If he’s not willing to do that much, then I think it leaves an open question about his integrity hanging in the air.

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