Fat Steve's Blatherings

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Continuing Collapse of CBS News

      Some cynic once remarked that the news media always get things completely correct, except for those rare occasions when they report on something you know about.  Then, by a miraculous coincidence, they get almost everything wrong.

      CBS News online has a story about political blogs that is truly pathetic.  Let's do a bit of fisking.

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

Internet blogs are providing a new and unregulated medium for politically motivated attacks. With the same First Amendment protections as newspapers, blogs are increasingly gaining influence.

      Apparently, Mr. Kuhn never bothered to learn anything about the United States Constitution.  If he had, he'd know that the First Amendment does not protect "newspapers."  It prohibits the "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;".  In short, it protects everyone's communications from Federal interference.

While many are must-reads for political junkies, are some Internet blogs also being used as proxies for campaigns? 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, a potentially more intriguing front was also opened.

The two leading South Dakota blogs – websites full of informal analysis, opinions and links – were authored by paid advisers to Thune’s campaign.

      So what?  Did the blogs in question try to raise money while falsely denying the connection?  If so, there'd be a case for fraud.  Did they deny it while not attempting to raise money?  If so, then they are poitical liars -- an activity the Supreme Court has always regarded as protected speech except when they cross the line into slander or libel.  Did the blogs in question do any of these things?  Let's see.

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the National Journal first cited Federal Election Commission documents showing that Jon Lauck, of Daschle v Thune, and Jason Van Beek, of South Dakota Politics, were advisers to the Thune campaign.

The documents, also obtained by CBS News, show that in June and October the Thune campaign paid Lauck $27,000 and Van Beek $8,000. Lauck had also worked on Thune’s 2002 congressional race.

Both blogs favored Thune, but neither gave any disclaimer during the election that the authors were on the payroll of the Republican candidate.

      Nope, the two blogs engaged in Constitutionally inviolate protected speech.  Just what problem does Mr. Kuhn have with this?

No laws have apparently been broken. Case precedent on political speech as it pertains to blogs does not exist.

      Horsefeathers.  There's a great deal of precendent on political writing, and it all says that, except for special categories (such as publishing classified information, or fraud, or slander/libel), any political speech is legal.

But where journalists' careers may be broken on 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.

      And now we come to the real complaint: "journalists' careers" being "broken on ethics violations."  In the first place, notice the idiocy of expecting a "code of ethics . . . to enforce any standard."  Enforcement is something done by people.  Second, the idea of "an employer" enforcing ethical standards assumes the boss is always right.  If Kuhn has an argument for that position, I'd like to read it.

      But the real point is the "broken careers."  It used to be that the question of whether something was a journalistic ethics violation was left to the journalists.  Since they controlled the communications media, they could ignore complaints from anyone outside their organizations.  Now they have us bloggers to deal with.  They want a means of retaliation.  Of course, they could start their own blogs, criticize us in them, and thus debate the issues. . .

At minimum, the role of blogs in the Daschle-Thune race is a telling harbinger for 2006 and 2008. Some blogs could become new vehicles for the old political dirty tricks.

      Hmm, do I discern a whiff of envy?  Having been caught in their own political dirty trick, is CBS is steamed at the thought that someone else might get away with one?

Like all media, blogs hold the potential for abuse. Experts point out that blogs' unregulated status makes them particularly attractive outlets for political attack.

      Ah, our old friends, "experts."  The perfect vehicle for expressing your own opinion on a subject, while pretending to be passing on the wisdom of those who know better.  Note that no mention is made of the fact that newspapers and television news shows are also "unregulated."

“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 we need to do more thinking about it.

      Here's a thought: the "appropriate regulations" for the Internet is the same as that for a newspaper's editorial page.

“If you put out flyers, you have to disclaim it, you have to represent who you are,” Jamieson said.

      A real reporter, interested in presenting the a balanced and accurate story, would here insert a reference to the section of U.S. law that requires someone putting out a flyer to "disclaim it."  The reason there's no such reference is that it isn't true.  Anonymous speech is constitutionally protected.

“If you put out an ad you have to put a disclaimer on it. But we don’t have those sorts of regulations for political content, that is campaign-financed on the Internet.”

      Whether it is a good idea to require campaign finance ads to carry disclaimers of identity is a debatable point.  But no example has been shown of any blog anywhere at any time runnning a "campaign-financed" ad.  We have been told of two blogs whose authors were on the payroll of a political campaign, but that's not the same thing.  If, for example, James Carville was working on a political campaign, and also writing letters to the editor or publishing pamphlets endorsing his candidate or attacking his candidate's opponent(s), that too would be perfectly legal.

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

“[The question is] whether blogs are analogous to a sole person campaigning or whether they are very much a media publication, which is essentially akin to an online newspaper,” said Goldberg, who is the legal counsel to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

      Apparently, basic logical thought is not necessary to attorneys any more.  If a blog is put out by a candidate and promotes his candidacy, as John Kerry's blog did, it is certainly "analogous to a sole person campaigning."  If a blog expresses opinions on who should be elected without being put out by the candidate or his campaign, it is just as certainly "akin to an online newspaper" or news broadcast.

“Ultimately, I think, the decision will have to come down to whether the public will be allowed to decide whether bloggers are credible or whether some regulation needs to occur.”

      Let's change that a little bit.  "Ultimately, I think, the decision will have to come down to whether the public will be allowed to decide whether newspapers and television networks are credible or whether some regulation needs to occur."  Hmm, notice a little problem there?  The First Amendment does not allow 'non-credible' newspapers or networks to be regulated.  Why should the 'Net be different?

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. This has historically been the argument against monopolies in media ownership.

      Red herring.  None of the blogs mentioned was put out by a corporation or a union.  They were put out by individuals.

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 likely never work in mainstream journalism again. Hence, the courts have been satisfied with the industry’s ability to regulate itself.

      Maybe I should have titled this post, "Lies, damned lies, and CBS News."  If the New York Times had a reporter "being paid by the Bush campaign"!!!  Oh, that is droll.  It's an open question whether the Times has any reporters who even voted for Bush.  An honest example would have been 'a reporter being paid by the Kerry campaign.'  But pass that by.  Suppose the Times did have such a reporter, and the paper declined to fire him.  Would that justify the Supreme Court ruling that henceforth all newspapers were subject to regulation of any kind?  Everything I've ever read about First Amendment jurisprudence says it would not.

The affiliations and identities of bloggers are not always apparent.

      So what?  The fact that the author of this story is identified, and that he isn't being paid by a party, campaign, or politician doesn't tell us he's unbiased, unhampered by preconceptions, honest, or even minimally competent.  In fact, he doesn't appear to be any of those things.

Take writer Duncan Black, who blogged under the name Atrios. His was a popular liberal blog.

      Gee, reading that, you'd think Black had given up blogging.  I just checked, and he's still there.  By the way, notice that Kuhn didn't provide a link or URL.

During part of the period he was blogging, Black was a senior fellow at a liberal media watchdog group, Media Matters for America. Critics in the blogosphere said this fact wasn't fairly disclosed.

      At this point, let us visit blogads.  They have a portion of the original version of the CBS story there, in which Kuhn stated:
In the case of Duncan Black, this is what happened. The author of the popular liberal blog Atrios, Black wrote under a pseudonym. All the while, he was a senior fellow at a liberal media watchdog group, Media Matters for America.

      This is the vaunted MSM at work here, the people who supposedly got their jobs because they were very good at reporting.  Yet the professional got the name of the blog wrong (it's "Eschaton").  They mention that Black used a webname, but don't tell you what it is ("Atrios," a fact you can discover by reading any of Black's posts).  And according to Black, whom I have no reason to doubt on this score, he was hired by Media Matters in June of 2004.  He's been blogging since April 17, 2002, as a quick look at his archives shows.  Aren't these the people who were complaining recently that we didn't have credibility, but they did?

      By the way, although the story has been corrected twice (the second version was also wrong, as blogads shows), there's no notice on the third version that any changes have been made (screen shot available on request).  Some people might think making unacknowledged changes in a story is an ethical issue.  I guess Kuhn and CBS don't.

      In any case, the complaint, made by unnamed "critics," is that Black's employment "wasn't fairly disclosed."  Now, I can't say I often find myself agreeing with Atrios on anything, and I haven't found out when he disclosed his employment at Media Matters (though his blog now carries a notice at the end, stating "Disclaimer: This is a personal web site. It is not a production of Media Matters for America (MMFA). Statements on this site do not represent the views or policies of MMFA. Preferences for electoral candidates posted on this site have not been expressed using any MMFA resources.").  But regardless of whether I agree with him or not, after examining Media Matter's site, I don't find my opinion of him changing noticeably.  Just what is the problem here?

“People are pretty smart in assuming that if a blog is making a case on one side that it’s partisan,” Jamieson said. “The problem is when a blog pretends to hold neutrality but is actually partisan.”

That is not a legal problem, however, but one of ethics. Black eventually claimed credit for his blog and his affiliation with Media Matters. Fellow bloggers heavily publicized his political connections. And Black continued blogging.

      If there was ever anyone in the entire world who regarded Eshaton as "holding neutrality", I would like to meet him or her.  Eschaton has always been openly partisan.  But, in a striking illustration of editing as lying, Kuhn implies that Atrios was pretending to be neutral and non-partisan.  This is a lie.  The lie continues in the next paragraph.

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

      Again, we aren't really told what it was that Black did, and why it is wrong.  The lack of "ethical guidelines" comes up, though.  I get the impression that Kuhn isn't happy with people writing about politics unless there's an organization somewhere that puts out official standards.  If so, that says more about Kuhn than it does about Atrios, or political blogs in general.

“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 Eugene Volokh, who teaches free speech law at UCLA Law School and authors his own blog, the Volokh Conspiracy.

      Again, no link or URL.  Again, a stupid factual error (The Volokh Conspiracy has been a group effort from the begining, although at first the group was only the Volokh brothers.)

“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. “Now there is an exception for speech that urges the election or defeat of a particular candidate.” But where this exception relates to Internet blogs is unclear.

      And in yet another instance of editing as lying, the idea that the Web is Constitutionally protected is relegated to the end of the story.

Beginning next year, the F.E.C. will institute new rules on the restricted uses of the Internet as it relates to political speech.

“I think those questions are going to have to be asked and answered,” said Lillian BeVier, a First Amendment expert at the University of Virginia. “It’s going to be an issue and it should be an issue.”

      I wonder what exactly the questions are that Miss BeVier thinks need answering.  I wonder what she thinks the FCC will decide, and what she thinks the Supreme Court will say.  I wonder what she thinks the answers should be.  And I especially wonder what else she said in the interview, and what the interviewer said, and who the interviewer was.  Those are all things CBS News doesn't tell us in the story, nor is there any way of finding out.

      But I don't wonder about the motivation for writing and publishing this document.  CBS has been outrageously biased and thoroughly dishonest for decades.  They can't get away with it anymore, because bloggers keep exposing their lies.  They're browned off about it.  I must confess, their anger makes me smile.

Note: the paragraph above about unacknowledged changes was added after this item was posted.  I originally intended to mention it, but I forgot.  Still, I wouldn't want to criticize the MSM for not upholding a standard, then ignore it myself.  Only profesional reporters are allowed to do that.



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