Plain Dealer Should Deal Openly with Blog Ethics

    by Jay Rosen
    November 11, 2007

    By now you may have heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer featuring four voices from the ranks of local bloggers: two left, two right. They were paid as freelance contributors. Here’s the way the “reader representative,” Ted Diadiun, described the meltdown. It began when Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican Congressman, found out that one of the Wide Open bloggers, Jeff Coryell of Cleveland Heights, had contributed $100 to his opponent.

    LaTourette was unhappy that the newspaper would pay someone who financially supported his opponent to write political opinion. He complained to editorial page director Brent Larkin, who referred him to Editor Susan Goldberg, whom he had never met. LaTourette set up an appointment, then thought better of it and canceled.

    Goldberg was also unhappy, but not because LaTourette was unhappy.

    “The issue here isn’t blogging, or political pressure,” she said. “The issue is our financial tie to these four bloggers. To allow someone we pay to use our site to, potentially, lobby for a candidate they financially support would put us in a place we can’t go. Had we known that he had contributed to the opponent of a person he might write about, we wouldn’t have put him on the blog in the first place.”

    After some deliberation, Dubail told Coryell he would have to agree to refrain from writing about LaTourette if he wanted to continue with the blog. Coryell declined, and they parted ways. The other liberal blogger quit in sympathy….

    And that was the end of the blog, Wide Open. But the episode was just starting. (See Editor & Publisher’s account, and Jeff Jarvis once, then again. Danny Glover thinks Jarvis has been too rough on the P-D. Here is Jeff Coryell’s resignation, and Jill Zimon’s I’m quitting too post. See Jill’s blog, Writes Like She Talks, for continuing coverage.)

    My own conclusion tracks with what what Mark Potts said: “A classic case of a newspaper so stuck in the old ways of doing things that it shoots itself in the foot when it ventures into something new. The paper’s management has rolled itself into a defensive ball over something that shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place, making things worse in the process.”


    Which is especially true of Ted Diadiun’s odious explainer, “Wide Open blog bumps up against journalistic ethics,” almost a primer in legacy media sludge think. What not to do in a blog storm has rarely been better shown. Organization of Newspaper Ombudsmen (ONO), bid your members to study Ted’s work that you might warn them not to repeat it. And if you need help, Jarvis took the column apart point-by-point.

    “This is a story about how The Plain Dealer got itself spattered by some primordial ooze last week,” Diadiun wrote. That would be the mud—an image of ethical taint—that gets slung casually around in the blogosphere. Because a lot of people were sympathetic to Coryell’s argument that he was dumped after a Republican Congressman complained, some of the mud hit the newspaper. In case you’re wondering what “newspaper” signifies these days, that’s the building where they keep the ethics, at least according to Diadiun. “The fallout from all this draws a bright line between the way newspaper reporters and bloggers ply their crafts.”

    What he means is: bloggers can afford to have zero ethics, journalists cannot. It takes a special kind of mind to divide up the world that way, which why I am including Ted Daidiun’s column in Cold Type, my anthology of great curmudgeon lit. (Other selections here and here and here and here.)


    Since so much has been written on this episode, and I am late in commenting on it, I offer a few points not made elsewhere: (Okay, so twelve points is not exactly a “few.”)

    √ Advice to newsroom people: if you’re caught up in a situation that appears to pit journalists with ethics against bloggers who ain’t got none, you may actually be facing a conflict between one ethic and another, and it would be good to find out what the “other” is before deciding what to do.

    √ In this case the other ethic is not “giving money to a politician and writing about his opponent for the newspaper is just good clean fun…” but rather the principle of transparency. In my view the Plain Dealer’s editors could have asked the Wide Open bloggers to disclose all their political contributions in their bios at the site. If they were especially concerned about being fair to LaTourette they could have asked Coryell to mention the $100 in a “full disclosure” note at the end of any post he wrote about the Congressman.

    √ If Coryell had quit over the demand to disclose—unlikely, in my view—I would have supported the Plain Dealer. And if Coryell had quit over that and gone to the blogosphere with his complaints about political pressure, lots of people would have told him to take a hike. That’s how the ethic of transparency works. (By the way, here’s my transparency page.)

    √ Transparency is not some new media buzzword but an alternative means of generating trust. In one system, which the Plain Dealer unwisely called “journalistic ethics,” the newspaper tries to generate trust by persuading readers that no one at the Plain Dealer has a hidden agenda, or an ax to grind. In the alternative system—sunlight ethics—trust is generated when the newspaper persuades readers that all interests and stakes that might bear on the story have been disclosed. I don’t think either system is perfect. I don’t think either choice solves all the problems an editor will face. But they work differently.

    √ Inexplicably, neither Susan Goldberg, the top editor, nor Ted Daidiun have explained why they didn’t respond to the discovery of the troublesome $100 by instituting the transparency system at Wide Open. This would be far more appropriate for an opinion blog written by people from the political community who weren’t told to check their political commitments and interests at the door.

    √ Instead of explaining why the transparency option was rejected, Goldberg and Daidiun have tried to suggest that it was the money they were paying the bloggers that tied them in knots and forced their hand. This is weak. “Just like when we hire a freelancer to review a play, we would never hire somebody who was an investor in the theater production,” Goldberg said to a Poynter researcher. Well, her analogy is bad. It requires us to see as essentially similar a theatre critic giving a good review and thereby profiting from the increased business that a well-reviewed play would do, and Jeff Coryell writing a critique of a Congressman he wanted to defeat and thereby profiting from… well, how would he profit, exactly? Susan Goldberg has no idea. In Daidiun’s column she worries that Coryell could “potentially lobby for a candidate,” forgetting that lobbyists are paid by those they lobby for.

    √ Ted Daidun is supposed to be the “reader representative” for the Plain Dealer. But he decided to abandon his post and become, as Jarvis said, the newspaper’s rep for the duration of this incident. I can’t find anything he said or wrote about Wide Open that suggests he understands the distinction. Wide Open, after all, was written by four readers of the Plain Dealer raised to the status of writer. Daidun abandoned them too. He didn’t even ask that his column run as a post at Wide Open so readers could comment. (No comments allowed on his column, naturally.)

    √ Dubail, in my opinion, should never have let Ted Daidun be the voice of the Plain Dealer on this incident. I have no idea how it happened, but that was a strategic error. (Full disclosure: I had a few email exchanges with Jean about the Plain-Dealer about joining NewAssignment.Net’s next project, Beat Reporting with a Social Network, but we hadn’t gotten very far when this thing blew up.) Danny Glover thinks Diadiun’s column was “over the top, but that just means he, like Jarvis, would be a good blogger.”

    √ Daidiun writes: “[Coryell] rejects the ingrained ethics of the newspaper world, preferring to read editors’ minds and create his own reality. Other bloggers pick that up and repeat it as gospel, and suddenly we begin getting questions from all over the country about why we’re letting Steve LaTourette run the newspaper.” The Web’s engrained ethic of transparency—which for the most part is rejected by newspaper journalists—includes linking to what you are talking about. By this standard Daidiun’s column, which doesn’t even link to Wide Open, falls short of the ethical standard (most) bloggers keep.

    √ I don’t understand why the four bloggers for Wide Open didn’t get together once the ultimatum had been given and decide what to do as a group. Do you? (Todd Blumer, another of the Wide Open bloggers, seems to have the same question, while Jill Zimon writes, “Why didn’t the PD come to all four of us to re-set the rules, but rather only went to one of us?” See also Jeff Coryell in the comments at PressThink: “The four Wide Open bloggers didn’t act together partly because I didn’t reach out to them.”)

    √ Finally, as I wrote at Buzzmachine: What I have not heard from anyone at the Plain Dealer is why they aren’t a little more suspicious of Congressman LaTourette’s response to the big revelation about $100… The Congressman didn’t have to be outraged and demand action to correct this alleged injustice. What he could have said is “Politics-and political opinion-ain’t beanbag. People have the right to express themselves and be heard in the newspapers. I’m glad that Clevelanders like Jeff Coryell are engaged in the issues, and trying to get others to pay attention. I recognize that when people get engaged in politics they also give money to those they support. This is normal. This is democracy.” He could have said that, but he didn’t. Instead he rejected the engrained ethics of a vigorously democratic political culture and made a fuss about a writer already publicly identified as a political opponent. Why? What does the editorial page of the Plain-Dealer have to say about that? Has it lost its voice?

    Tagged: bloggers journalism ethics newspapers participation transparency
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