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

    2 responses to “Plain Dealer Should Deal Openly with Blog Ethics”

    1. Great roundup!

      Unfortunately, many in media share this if-you-engage-in-society-you-can’t-be-a-journalist attitude. A session at the Online News Association conference essentially asked “Can a journalist have a blog” (and answered, “sort of.”)

      It’s also sad and ironic that the Cleveland Plain Dealer editors set up something called “Wide Open,” orchestrated the tired Republican-Democrat dichotomy to manufacture a sort of conflict they understood, and couldn’t even figure out how to profit when actual controversy arose.

      They didn’t even hire these people to report but rather to have political opinions. If a pro-Democratic candidate blogger had donated to a Republican candidate, that’s a scandal.

      Thank you Jay for phrasing this as a matter of two different ethics. That’s an important contribution, albeit one I will undermine by stating flatly that the ethic of transparency is the better ethic.

      The bigger problem with the ethic of avoiding an appearance of conflict of interest is that it denies reporters the right to be human (and in so doing denies the public humane reporting).

      The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s policy that financial support of what you like is forbidden, applied to freelance political bloggers in this case, would logically preclude any reporter, editor, or publisher from donating to causes, going to charitable fundraisers, giving money to a church, or purchasing a product or service.

      After all, what could be clearer evidence of bias then someone voluntarily giving money to anyone else, whether the receiving people are a homeless veteran and a street musician (no military, housing or urban reporting for you!) or the employees and owners of Verizon when you pay your phone bill (that’s the end of your telecommunications, labor, and business reporting!)

      This sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. We the media are in 1984 going on 2008 and a major regional newspaper experimenting online can’t distinguish between a material conflict of interest (a campaign paying a writer) and an aspect of being a human, citizen, and political junkie (donations to a candidate by a writer). The former must always be disclosed and could be reason to end a reporting career. The latter should probably be disclosed to readers but cannot be considered a breach of ethics until we have all our reporting and commentary done by space aliens with no connection to life on earth.

    2. Great post and great comment.

      With experience at five daily newspapers, I sadly can’t say I was too surprised at how this went down although I think that in this case, the focus is a bit off.

      I think people are bending over backwards to give the PD the benefit of the doubt and I understand that. However, after going through this over and over with the principle people (bloggers) involved and knowing what I know of the inner workings of metro dailies there is more than just a preponderance of the evidence to suggest that journalist ethics had little to nothing to do with the Wide Open Blog incident.

      At base, this cannot reasonably be construed as anything other than a political hit, launched by Steven LaTourette and acquiesced by the Plain Dealer. But this sort of thing goes on, in my estimation, at newspapers big and small all over the country. The difference here is that we had a rare occasion where the principal players were not beholden to the newspaper industry for their jobs and thus, did not go quietly.

      In most cases, reporters who wish to work in the business again may leave in disgust or even be fired when their journalistic sensibilities come up against the political realities of a newspaper owner’s ethics. But they keep their mouths shut in order to be employable in the future. In this case, we got a rare inside look at sausage being made, to borrow a metaphor.

      If nothing else, this should be a teachable moment for any blogger who wants one day to work as a print journalist or anyone else so inclined. There is little that is ‘free’ in terms of opinion at a daily newspaper or at any commercial media outlet. I would love to teach one class for one hour at every journalism school to disabuse young wanna be’s of any notion that they can come in and change this culture and be the next Upton Sinclair, because it ain’t gonna happen. The newspaper’s view is the owner’s view, the newspaper’s friends, enemies and allies are the owners as well. You are as free to crusade for truth justice and the American way as much as your owner and his/her boss allows you to be. Trust me when I tell you, I have seen it many times in my years on staff and it seems to be getting worse.

      Here’s a great test of this theory: you as a reporter has a friend who has been shamelessly ripped off by a local car dealer. You do a little digging and discover all kinds of financial and ethical shenanigans at the dealership. The chance that any kind of story you will write will ever be printed in your newspaper is exactly zero because (and it has happened) the minute you single out one dealership, the other withhold their advertising from the newspaper, which, in many small to medium markets, cannot long survive without those whole page auto ads.

      It doesn’t matter if its business interests or political interests. The owner’s business is the name of the game. The only ethics that matter in the newsroom belong to the owner, like it or not. The owner can dictate the paper’s political coverage and endorsements (I saw it firsthand at the last paper I worked at) but the employee/reporter had better not think about reflecting any view contrary to the owner’s in their stories.

      In that way, its less a question about ethics and more about the traditional relationship between labor and capital. I suppose than when labor truly owns a media outlet, that outlet will reflect the viewpoint of labor.

      In the meantime, perhaps we should be less shocked at the antics of The Plain Dealer and work harder and trying to foster a more diverse and ground level journalism at the grass roots – especially in the Internet, but also at local low power FM stations, community weeklies and cable access TV as well. The old giants are falling and people really are looking for something different and exciting that they can interact with. The Wide Open Blog was such a vehicle but could never work under the old media paradigm. We just have to create and foster new ones.

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