Experts Tell CBS: Time to Clean Up the Blog Industry By Iowahawk

[Ed. note: found in a dumpster on W. 53rd Street — first draft of the latest CBSNews.com Special Report on the scourge of blogs]

(CBS) By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com chief political writer

In 1906, pioneering investigative reporter Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, documenting the squalid and filthy condition of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. Now, nearly a century later, another unregulated industry poses a potential health hazard to millions of unsuspecting American news consumers: Internet blogs.

Also known as “weblos” or “ternetbls,” these online publications began to appear on computer screens in early 2004, where they were first seen as an efficient way for ordinary citizens to share delicious dessert recipes and adorable pet photos. Instead, Internet blogs are increasingly being used for a darker purpose: to spread unregulated political opinions. Cleverly exploiting a loophole in the First Amendment, Internet blogs have gained many of the protections of legitimate media, such as newspapers and television. They are increasingly gaining influence.

Many are must-reads for political junkies, who openly cruise the unlit, trash-strewn alleyways of the Web, anxiously looking for a punditry “fix.” But is that vial of sweet political crack from Dr. Bloggood “stepped on” with dangerous campaign contaminants? In the nation’s hottest Senate race, this past year, the answer was yes.

Little over a month ago, the first Senate party leader in 52 years was ousted when South Dakota Republican John Thune defeated top Senate Democrat Tom Daschle. While more than $40 million was spent in the race, saturating the airwaves with advertising, it is clear that outcome was determined in the shadowy bowels of the violent South Dakota blog underworld: two leading South Dakota blogs were authored by paid advisers to Thune’s campaign.

Federal Election Commission documents obtained by CBS News show that in October the Thune campaign paid Jon Lauck, of Daschle v Thune, $27,000 and Jason Van Beek, South Dakota Politics, $8,000. Both blogs favored Thune, but neither gave any disclaimer during the election that the authors were on the payroll of the Republican candidate.

The shocking allegations were originally uncovered by KELO-TV and The Sioux Falls Argus Leader, after their advertising sales staffs reported increased buying resistance from the Thune campaign.

Oddly, no laws have apparently been broken. Case precedent on political speech as it pertains to blogs does not exist. But where distinguished, real journalists like Dan Rather can have their entire careers broken because some so-called “ethics violations,” bloggers are writing in the Wild West of cyberspace. There remains no code of ethics, or even an employer, to enforce any standard.

“Yeeehawww, looky me, I’m the Lone Cyberspace Ranger, riding across the unregulated cyberprairie with my trusty sidekick Proportional Fonto!” I mean, what the fuck? Godammit, experts didn’t go to two years of Columbia Journalism School to put up with this kind of shit from a bunch of faceless non-experts with modems.

At minimum, the role of blogs in the Daschle-Thune race is a telling harbinger for 2006 and 2008. And if blogs start to crowd out peer-reviewed media, consumers will begin losing access to professional-grade journalism phrases, like “telling harbinger.” Worse, some blogs could become new vehicles for the old political dirty tricks.

Like all media, blogs hold the potential for abuse. While there are yet no documented cases of people using blogs to smack their dogs on the nose for soiling the rug, or electrocutions from blogs falling into bathtubs, experts believe it may only be a matter of time. Experts also point out that blogs’ unregulated status makes them particularly attractive outlets for political attack.

“The question is: What are the appropriate regulations on the Internet?” asked Kathleen Jamieson, an expert on political communication and dean of the Annenberg School for Communications. “It’s evolved into an area that perhaps we need to restart the whole talk radio adjective-rationing debate.”

“If you put out flyers to sell your bicycle, you have to identify yourself with the little phone number tear-offs,” Jamieson said. “Maybe we could pass some kind of flyer-type laws like that, for these unlicensed blogging people, to get them off the Internet, and make sure we have enough funding to staff the nation’s Kinkos with federal flyer agents.”

“People are pretty smart in assuming that if a blog is making a case on one side that it’s partisan,” Jamieson added. “The problem is when a blog pretends to hold neutrality but is actually partisan, and this is where the average American is a gullible idiot. They become mesmerized by the intriguing fake neutrality of the blog, confusing it with the genuine neutrality of legitimate news sources, like network television, and then WHAMMO! that’s when they get the old bloggo sucker punch.”

First Amendment attorney Kevin Goldberg called blogs “definitely new territory.”

“Are blogs analogous to a sole person, or are they a media publication?” said Goldberg, a legal counsel to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “Whatever the courts decide, it is critical that we consider all those sweet billable hours.”

Generally, the Supreme Court has ruled that restrictions on political advocacy by corporations and unions does not apply to media or individuals. The reasoning has been that media competition insures legitimacy. And, unlike the rugged competition of the traditional media, the vast hypermonopoly of the blog industry offers little in the way of checks or balances.

Hypothetically, if The Washington Post discovered that The New York Times had a reporter being paid by the Bush campaign it would report it. If proven, the suspect reporter would be fired and sold to a traveling carnival freakshow, where he would be forever displayed as KoKo, Bush Boy of the Times. Hence, the courts have been satisfied with the industry’s ability to keep itself uncontaminated with Bush-types.

Duncan Black, author of the popular liberal blog Atrios, faced an early test of this. Black wrote under a pseudonym. While writing his blog, Black was a senior fellow at a liberal media watchdog group, Media Matters for America. Black eventually claimed credit for his blog. Fellow bloggers heavily publicized his political connections. He was teased and taunted, but has yet to be fired. As of press time, CBS News’ repeated phone calls to Black’s managers at Blogosphere, Inc. have not been returned.

Defenders of Black point out that unlike the South Dakota blogs, he was not working on behalf of a creepy Republican with a hair helmet. And clearly, absent blog ethical guidelines, what Black did was not that different than many others.

“He is perfectly free to write the blog. You can criticize him for it but he had a perfect Constitutional right to do what he did,” said a hysterical Volokh Conspiracy, who claims to teach “free speech law” at “UCLA” “Law School.”

“People are free to say whatever they want to say and not reveal any financial inducements and not reveal in whose pay they are,” Volokh added, shifting nervously in his seat while wiping sweat from his upper lip.

However, some experts believe that Volokh himself may have a conflict of interest. He authors his own blog, the Volokh Conspiracy, which prominently features advertisements for Post-It notes, a product of the 3M Corporation, which has contributed thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns since the 1960 election cycle.

Despite the rear-guard actions of First Amendment extremists like Volokh, many experts — and the experts’ copy editor, and also the experts’ girlfriend — believe the time has come to finally bring regulatory reform to the Blog Trust.

Just as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle spurred government oversight of the food industry in 1906, many experts believe that expert articles like this will spur angry internet consumers to demand government to shine a regulatory light into the dank, filthy recesses of the blog world.

When this will happen is unclear, but one thing is certain: the experts’ boss said he thinks the experts might get a Peabody Award out of it.

If you enjoyed this satire by Iowahawk, you can read more of his work here.

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