A Call for Distance in Blogger Conference Calls: Lines Between Bloggers and Politicians Rapidly Fading


I have been doing a lot of blogger conference calls lately.
They are fascinating, and I’ve learned something in every one.
However, I’ve recently surmised that there are some landmines in this blogger conference call business and that some serious reporters are scratching their heads wondering whether these calls enhance journalism or are violating some ethical norms in political reporting.
I have done a lot of these calls now — with House Members and Senators, all Dems. Interestingly, I hear through the grapevine that Hillary Clinton won’t do them.
I don’t know if Republicans are doing them or not as I’ve not been invited to one — though I was pleased to be invited by the Communications Directors in Senator John McCain’s and Senate Majority Bill Frist’s office to cover as a blogger/journalist a press conference that they gave last year advocating John Bolton’s confirmation. To their credit, and despite knowing the principled opposition my blog had taken to Bolton’s confirmation, they invited me along with the other press.
In the standard press conference, I — as a blogger — knew the rules. We were there not to be co-opted but rather to hear the Senators and to pose questions. We weren’t there as sycophants. Our job was to push the angles and report truthfully. We weren’t there as enemies of McCain and Frist, but as competitors regarding how to frame and tell the story of the political debate.
In contrast, the lines inside political blogger conference calls are fuzzier.
I have approached every blogger conference call I have been in with the norms and attitude of a journalist.
I have kept notes and believe that all the content on the call was fair game for reporting. Unless stated otherwise, I treat everything said as “on the record”.
However, it seems increasingly clear to me that those on the call — both the Member of Congress and the bloggers — are engaged in an informal collusion of interests. This may be too harsh a term. The Senators and Members look at bloggers as being co-participants in a political operation. The Members want to share their priorities and objectives with bloggers so that they can become the “noise machine” for the Dems. Some bloggers want to be NGO-like on one hand, advocating the Democratic Party’s line on some issue — while on the other, they want to be seen as journalists reporting on something they “got” from a Reid or Kennedy call.
On some levels, I’m OK with that. In the Bolton Battle, I certainly worked hard to advocate his defeat, to publicize as best I could the many problems in his work portfolio, and his attitude that made him inappropriate to represent the interests of Americans at the United Nations. But as a journalist with a view, I worked closely with Republicans and Democrats. Both sides fed me material. In fact, more came from Republican sources, far more, than Democratic.
I worked with NGOs and others in advocating a defeat of his confirmation in the Senate, but again in a way that was consistent with my views, work and writing and which worked across aisles.
In the case now, I think it’s fine that Senators or House Members annoint some “favored bloggers” as ones they want to reach out to, but the bloggers have an obligation to maintain some distance and objectivity in the process. Otherwise, the blogs will be seen as mouthpieces and noise machines of that Member’s operation, and as part of the “explicit” operation of a political organization.
Last night, I heard a disturbing rumor that I have not confirmed (I should add that none of the calls I was on required what I am about to report) that there has been one organizer of liberal blogger conference calls who imposed a “publish or perish” rule requiring all participants in a call to write about that call, and favorably. This person apparently required bloggers on the call to report and write about the meeting with some respective Member of Congress or not be invited back in the future.
Why would anyone impose such a rule? Why would a Senator or Representative and his or her staff put the Member in a position of making it look like they are trading access for manufactured web press? If this rumor is true, then bloggers are being put in the position of being “agents” of that Member — and there are serious legal consequences to that.
The bigger issue for me with the Blogger conference calls is the sycophancy that seems to be developing in these meetings — and the unwritten norm that those bloggers on the call are the running dogs for that particular Senator. There is clearly a ‘community’ of interests where the line between the journalistic and reporting objectives of the blogger and the interests of the Senator or Representative are becoming practically invisible.
Again, I think it’s OK for like-minded journalists and politicians to share views, even share objectives for the country and world — but the implied norm of the call feels as if there is an obligation of the bloggers to watch the Senator’s or Rep’s back — to write not necessarily truthfully about the call, but to “frame” or “shape” the call in such a way that fits a politically acceptable groove.
In Japan, there is a word, giri, that means “mutual obligation”. Giri can exist between journalists and politicians, between subordinates and seniors in a company, between different households in a community, between bank regulators and banks.
Quite simply, if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If I do something for you, then you owe me something in the future.
The well-known Dutch Japan analyst, Karel van Wolferen, once wrote that giri was akin to ‘hostage-taking’.
When a Japanese or an American politician provides a journalist or reporter favored access in exchange for favored reporting, one of the key elements of civil society is corrupted. Sometimes the corruption is slight, sometimes serious. But over the long run, with the long term habits of journalistic practice, most politicians — at least in America — realize that they can’t necessarily buy favorable articles with gifts of access. Both sides have tended to “respect” the process, at least until recent years.
There have tended to be just enough checks and balances in media to offset serious corruption — until the age of Fox News, Judith Miller, journalists turned celebrities, and others where clearly the lines of co-optation have become evident. But because the practice exists in the main stream media to a degree does not validate in the blogosphere.
Blogging is a new industry and new kind of journalism. Many bloggers are very young and not nearly as jaded as this writer about Washington. For them, getting on to a call with Kennedy or Reid or Durbin is a career mountain climbed. They are thankful to be there — and they know that their presence is fragile.
There are exceptions, however. I have no doubt that if Hillary Clinton had a blogger conference call, Markos Moulitsas (aka Kos) would not be sycophantic. There’s a confidence in Kos’s position that doesn’t yield just because of the provision of access.
But that kind of confidence around power is rare in the blogging world.
What is more common in these calls is a great desire by bloggers to be the vessels of Members — when what they should be is in dialogue with these Members, challenging them, engaging them, and reporting fairly — even if the views of each side are somewhat similar.
In our system of government and in our civil society, we have governance rules that require regulators and the regulated not to corrupt their competitive objectives with strategies of co-optation or “mutual obligation”.
It may be important for these proliferating blogger conference calls to make clear from the outset that the Senator or Member has views he or she wants to share — and that bloggers can pose questions or even offer comments of enthusiastic support.
But everything not taken off the record should be on the record — and none faulted for accurately depicting the content of such a call.
I ran into this recently in which some well-respected bloggers (whom I like) challenged me on my reporting about a blogger conference call with Senator Harry Reid. Reid’s office felt that I depicted his comments accurately — and after some serious media interest in my report — issued a “clarification” of his comment that I posted.
But the opposition to my own report was not over the “accuracy” of my report — but rather that I had written something that conservative bloggers and pundits were running with to attack Reid. They felt as if there had been some minor betrayal of Reid in what I wrote.
A week after this, This Week with George Stephanopoulos used the piece from my blog in a conversation with Senator Barack Obama about ethics reforms strategies.
The bottom line is that my report on Reid helped surface a seemingly genuine difference of views about strategies on ehtics reform inside the Democratic Party.
I did not argue that Reid’s strategy was wrong and that Obama’s was better. I simply reported that there were mutiple views in play.
If bloggers are positioning themselves to be the mouthpieces of a Member, then neither the interests of the Member nor the bloggiing community will be served. Any pretense of balance or even of credible, logical thinking will be undermined if Members of Congress view blogs as predictable appendages of their work and interests.
There needs to be polite distance, and all sides on these interesting calls need to respect the responsibilities they have in these debates about politics and policy.
I will continue to participate in these blogger conference calls as long as I’m asked.
I hope I am, but i will also be there using journalistic norms when reporting as a journalist blogger.
That’s the only way that these “blogger conference calls” can remain healthy.
— Steve Clemons