Posts about ethics

Oversight by conscience

Here’s a post I wrote for the Guardian this week….

Official means of oversight of American and British spying have failed. So we are left with the protection of last resort: the conscience of the individual who will resist abuse of power or expose it once it is done.

At the Guardian Activate conference in New York last Wednesday, I moderated a heated panel discussion about the NSA affair with former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 Commission; Prof. Yochai Benkler, codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard; and journalist Rebecca MacKinnon, a New America fellow.

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“We do not have appropriate mechanisms to hold abuse accountable,” MacKinnon said, and to more or lesser degrees, the panelists agreed that oversight is at least too weak. Said Benkler: “The existing systems of oversight and accountability failed repeatedly and predictably in ways that were comprehensible to people inside the system but against which they found themselves unable to resist because of the concerns about terrorism and national security.” Kerrey: “I don’t think we’re even close to having unaccountable surveillance [but] I don’t think it’s good oversight.” I’ll count that as consensus. We then checked off the means of oversight.

* Executive-branch oversight is by all appearances nonexistent.

* Congressional oversight didn’t exist before Watergate, Kerrey said, and when it was established it was made intentionally weak. It should be conducted, he said, “under a constant, militant sense of skepticism.” The clearest evidence that the authority that exists is not being used, he said, is that in the Snowden affair, not a single subpoena has been issued from either the House or Senate select committees.

* The secret FISA courts have proven to be rubber stamps using invisible ink — their justices sometimes concerned or reluctant, Benkler said. But they have been largely ineffectual in any case.

* Journalistic oversight is the next resort. But as MacKinnon stressed, the work of the journalist investigating spying is threatened by the spies themselves as they collect metadata on any call and message and reconstitute raw internet traffic so that no reporters and no sources can be certain they are not being watched unless they find woods to walk in.

So we are left with the whistleblower. “What the whistleblower does is bring an individual conscience to break through all of these systems,” Benkler argued. “It can’t be relied upon as a systematic, everyday thing. It has very narrow and even random insights into the system. But it can be relied upon occasionally to break through these layers of helplessness within the system.”

But this oversight, too, is jeopardized by the severe penalties suffered by Chelsea Manning and the label of traitor pasted on Edward Snowden.

“There’s no question Snowden violated U.S. law,” Kerrey declared in our panel, “and there has to be consequences to that.”

Benkler disagreed, arguing the case for amnesty. “There is a law but the law is always affected by politics and judgment,” he said. “Clearly when someone opens up to the public a matter that is of such enormous public concern that it leads to such broad acceptance of the need for change and for reform, that person ought not come under the thumb of criminal prosecution.”

There we tried to find the line that enables acts of conscience and civil disobedience to keep watch on the powerful. Benkler imagined “a core principle that when a whistleblower discloses facts that actually lead to significant public debate and change in policy — that is to say a public rejection whether through judicial action or legislative action; a reversal — that is the core or heart of what needs to be protected in whistleblowing.”

Kerrey again disagreed, drawing a parallel between Edward Snowden and Klaus Fuchs, who handed secrets on the atomic bomb to the Soviets, Kerrey contended, also out of conscience. Benkler in turn drew a line between revealing information to the public, serving democracy, and revealing secrets to an enemy. Kerrey responded that Fuchs, like Snowden, caused public debate. Benkler thought the rule could be written; Kerrey did not. You can see that we failed to find the line.

But I want to take this discussion beyond whistleblowing — beyond the past tense — the the present tense of objecting to the work one is required to do before it is done. “At what point does conscience require a person to refuse to act in a certain way that they consider completely acceptable in the system they’re in but they find completely unacceptable to their conscience?” Benkler asked.

Kerrey countered: “I don’t think every time you get a team of people working on the danger [to national security], one person can say, ‘Oh, I don’t like what we’re doing,’ and as an act of conscience blow everything we’re doing and say we’re not going to be prosecuted.”

But we must find the room for conscience to act as the check on power without facing 35 years in prison or life in exile or irreversible jeopardy to our security. We must be able to expect the honest technologist working in the bowels of Google or telecom provider Level 3 or the NSA or GCHQ to define a line and refuse to cross it. Can we expect that?

In recent testimony before Congress, Gen. Keith Alexander said the NSA is the nation’s largest employer of mathematicians — or to be exact, 1,103 mathematicians, 966 PhDs, and 4,374 computer scientists.

Where is the code of ethics that governs their work in breaking into our communication or breaking the encryption we use to protect it? Where is the line they will not cross? Doctors have their codes. Even we journalists have ours (and though some apparently never imagined a clause relating to phone hacking, others found it for them).

We have heard two Google engineers tell the NSA to fuck off for — according to Snowden’s documents — infiltrating internal traffic between servers at Google and Yahoo.

Does this challenge to the NSA give us confidence that others at Google will tell the NSA “no”? But who said “yes” to Project MUSCULAR, in what company? Was that company commandeered by the the NSA and employees with security clearance or was the work done willingly? Why didn’t the technologists who spliced that line say “fuck you”, too? Will they be more willing to do that now that this work is known? And what will happen to those who do stop at the line?

On July 17, 1945, 155 scientists working on the Manhattan Project signed a petition to President Harry Truman urging him not to use the bomb on Japan. “Discoveries of which the people of the United States are not aware may affect the welfare of this nation in the near future,” they said.

They were too late.

Here is video of the panel discussion:

The Future of the Internet from The Guardian on FORA.tv

In the End Was the Word and the Word Was the Sponsor’s

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We used to know what ads were. They had borders around them — black lines in print, a rare millisecond of dead air on TV, the moment when the radio host’s voice became even friendlier, letting us know he was now being paid to peddle.

Today, under many ruses and many namessponsored content, native advertising, brand voice, thought leadership, content marketing, even brand journalism — advertisers are conspiring with desperate publishers to erase the black lines identifying ads.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, a sage editor sat me down and summarized in one sentence the magazine industry’s voluminous rules about labeling what we then called “advertorials”: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Confusing the audience is clearly the goal of native-sponsored-brand-content-voice-advertising. And the result has to be a dilution of the value of news brands.

Some say those brands are diminishing anyway. So sponsored content is just another way to milk the old cows as they die. Lately I’ve been shocked to hear some executives at news organizations, as well as some journalism students and even teachers, shrug at the risk. If I’m the guy who argues that news must find new paths to profitability, then what’s my problem?

Well, I fear that in the end we all become the Times of India, where paid advertising and news content are allegedly mixed so smoothly in some areas that readers can’t tell one from the other. Worse, at some news organizations, editorial staff do the work of writing this sponsored content. They become copywriters.

Mad Men Don Draper Peggy Olsen

At the same time, many of these news organizations are using their brands as candy to attract legions of new contributors, which can drastically lower the cost of content. Mind you, I’ve applauded that spirit of openness and collaboration as well as that newfound efficiency.

But here’s the issue: Some media properties have taught me to pause before following a link to them. Sometimes, I’ll find good information from a staffer or one of many contributors who brings real reporting or expertise. Sometimes, I’ll find a weak contributor — or staff — piece that adds no reporting or insight; it merely regurgitates what others have written when a link would be better. (Beware headlines that start with “how” or “why” or include the words “future of” or “death of” or end with a question mark; chances are, they add nothing.) And then sometimes I’ll find one of those sponsor-brand-native pieces only vaguely labeled to let me know its source.

My problems with these trends in news media:

Inconsistency. I no longer know what to expect from news organizations that do this. Yes, I’ve heard editors claim that they work with both contributors and sponsors to improve the quality of their submissions — but apparently, not enough.

Brands used to be selective both because the scarcity of paper or time forced them to be and because that became key to their value. Now they want more and more content. Making content to chase unique users and their page views rewards volume over value.

Conflict of interest. First, let me say that I think we in news became haughty and fetishistic about our church/state walls. The reason I teach entrepreneurial journalism is so that students learn about the business of journalism so they can become more responsible stewards of it. I argue that editors, too, must understand the business value and thus sustainability of what they produce.

That said, I worry about journalists who spend one day writing to serve the public and the next writing to serve sponsors. News organizations should never do that with staff, but I’m sorry to say that today, a few do. Freelance journalists are also turning to making sponsored content to pay the bills.

Thus, I hear of some journalism educators who wonder whether they should be teaching their students to write for brands. Please, no. My journalism school doesn’t do that. Others schools already include courses in PR and advertising, so I suppose the leap isn’t so far. In any case, brands will hire our students because of the media skills we teach them and we need to prepare them for the ethical challenge that brings.

Brand value. Some news companies are exchanging their brand equity for free or cheap content of questionable quality and advertising dollars of questionable intent. As someone who champions disruption in the news industry, you’d think I wouldn’t care about dying legacy media brands. But I do. I see how legacy news companies can bring value to the growing news ecosystem around them through sharing content and audience and someday soon, I hope, revenue. If the legacy institutions lose their value — their trust, their audience, their advertisers — then they have less to give, and if they die, there’s more to replace.

Now here’s the funny part: Brands are chasing the wrong goal. Marketers shouldn’t want to make content. Don’t they know that content is a lousy business? As adman Rishad Tobaccowala said to me in an email, content is not scalable for advertisers, either. He says the future of marketing isn’t advertising but utilities and services. I say the same for news: It is a service.

I’ve been arguing to news organizations that they should stop thinking of themselves as content businesses and start understanding that they are in a relationship business.

News organizations should not treat people as a mass now that they — like Google, Amazon, and Facebook — can learn to serve them as individuals. Can’t the same be said of the brands that are now rushing to make content? They’re listening to too many tweeted media aphorisms: that content is king, that brands are media. Bull.

A brand is a relationship. It signifies trust and value. Advertising and public relations disintermediated the relationship that commercial enterprises used to have with customers over the cracker barrel. Mass media helped them bring scale to marketing. But now the net enables brands to return to having direct relationships with customers. That’s what we see happening on Twitter. Smart companies are using it not to make content but to talk one-on-one with customers.

Here’s where I fear this lands: As news brands continue to believe in their content imperative, they dilute their equity by using cheap-content tricks to build volume and by handing their brand value to advertisers to replace lost ad revenue. Marketers help publishers milk those brands. And the public? We’re smarter than they think we are. We’ll understand when news organizations become paid shills. We understand that marketers would still rather force-feed us their messages than simply serve us.

What to do? The reflex in my industries — journalism and education — is to convene august groups to compose rules. But rules are made to be pushed, stretched, and broken. That is why that wise Time Inc. editor over me at Entertainment Weekly (as opposed to the oily ones who tried to force me to force my critics to write nicer reviews) summed up those rules as a statement of ethics. Again: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Well, if we’re not in the content business, then what is the ethic by which we should operate now? I think it’s even simpler: “We serve the public.”

If we’re doing what we do to fool the public, to sell them crappy content or a shill’s swill, to prioritize paying customers’ interests over readers’, then we will cannibalize whatever credibility, trust, and value our brands have until they dry up.

So am I merely drawing a black rule around advertising again? Don’t we hear contributors to a hundred news sites rewrite the same story every day — that advertising is dead? Well, yes, advertising as one-way messaging is as outmoded as one-way media. Oh, we in media will milk advertising as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it. But we know where this is headed.

Then do media companies have any commercial connection with brands? Can we still get money from them to support news? I think it’s possible for media companies to help brands understand how to use the net to build honest, open relationships with people as individuals. But we can teach them that only if we first learn how to do it ourselves.

Some will accuse me of chronic Google fanboyism for suggesting this, but we can learn that lesson from Google. It makes 98% of its fortune from advertising but it does so by serving us, each of us, first. It addresses its obvious conflict with the admonition, “Don’t be evil.” (When Google has failed to live up to that ethic — and it has — its fall came not from taking advertisers’ dollars but instead from seeking growth with the help of malevolent telcos or tyrannical governments.) Note well that Google sees the danger of sponsored content, which is why it has banned such content from Google News.

Whether you like Google or you don’t, know well that it provides service over content, enabling it to build relationships with each of us as individuals while also serving advertisers without creating confusion. Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.

My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.

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(Crossposted from Medium.)

#twitterfail ethics & economics

Update 415p EST: Twitter reinstated Guy Adams account and sent him essentially a form letter and then Twitter’s general counsel, Alex Macgillivray (@amac) wrote a post that did apologize and did discuss the need for trust but still leads to the impression that Adams violated Twitter’s terms of service, which I do not believe happened (he revealed a *public* address; he was not given the opportunity to act on the complaint). It also makes a rather quisling argument that business emails could have personal use; if that’s the case, then Twitter’s policy would forbid the sharing of all email addresses, which would be silly.

In this paragraph, Macgillevray points to precisely where the church/state line I refer to in the post below should be drawn:

That said, we want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up. The team working closely with NBC around our Olympics partnership did proactively identify a Tweet that was in violation of the Twitter Rules and encouraged them to file a support ticket with our Trust and Safety team to report the violation, as has now been reported publicly. Our Trust and Safety team did not know that part of the story and acted on the report as they would any other.

So the commercial team working with a business partner acted on behalf of that partner’s interests rather than in the interests of the users and in the interests of Twitter as an open, reliable, and trustworthy platform.

#twitterfail.

I am glad that Twitter recanted and reinstated Adams. But the discussion has not gone far enough. What Macgillevray apologizes for is Twitter employees actively monitoring a user’s content rather than waiting for a complaint. That’s too limited a scope. We still need to discuss the principles under which a platform operates and the trust it requires.

My earlier post:

* * *

Twitter is going to have to learn the lesson that newspapers had to learn when they started accepting advertising: that when trust is your asset, you must run your service and your business according to principles of trust. Newspapers built church/state walls to demonstrate that they could not be bought by sponsors’ influence. Twitter needs that wall. Every tech company fancying itself a platform does. Or it can’t be trusted and won’t be used and will lose value. Those are the economics of trust.

Twitter’s killing of a journalist’s account threatens to be a defining moment for the company, as Dan Gillmor warned. The details are nearly meaningless. Independent writer Guy Adams was very critical of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics (as I have been and many have been, using #nbcfail as our gathering place and megaphone). Adams published the corporate email address of NBC Olympics chief Gary Zenkel and then Twitter killed his account. But the email address was hardly private — it had been published online and follows NBC format: first.last@nbcuni.com. Adams was not informed of the complaint and given the opportunity to delete the tweet, as Twitter’s rules require. Indeed, Adams found out that Twitter initiated the complaint, not NBC. And what’s the harm, really, to NBC: that its viewers can talk to them? NBC should welcome that. And the furor certainly spread Zenkel’s email far wider than any tweet.

No, the real issue here is that Twitter entered a business deal with NBC and its parent, Comcast, for the Olympics. That, in Adams’ word, puts NBC and Twitter in cahoots with each other. So now do other users have to worry about biting the hand that feeds Twitter?

I asked Twitter repeatedly for what it has to say about this and held off writing this post until I gave up on getting a response. I still hold hope that Twitter will come to its senses, recant, restore Adams’ account, apologize, and learn a lesson.

For this incident itself is trivial, the fight frivolous. What difference does it make to the world if we complain about NBC’s tape delays and commentators’ ignorance?

But Twitter is more than that. It is a platform. It is a platform that has been used by revolutionaries to communicate and coordinate and conspire and change the world. It is a platform that is used by journalists to learn and spread the news. If it is a platform it should be used by anyone for any purpose, none prescribed or prohibited by Twitter. That is the definition of a platform.

In political matters, Twitter has behaved honorably. It famously delayed a maintenance shutdown so as not to cut off communication at a crucial moment in the Arab Spring. It has fought government subpoenas to get information on tweeters in protests and regarding Wikileaks.

But now in business matters, it acts in a suspect manner and that is worrying for Twitter and moreso for its users.

Twitter needs to decide on, declare, and live by principles. I believe it needs to prove to us that it is not beholden to sponsors any more than it is to governments. It must fight for our trust or it will lose its value to us (and its shareholders). This is why Google was wise to decree that it should not be evil. It is a good business decision.

Now I fully understand the irony of my beginning this post using newspapers and journalism as a model. We in my industry have squandered our trust, not so much through direct advertiser influence but through short-sighted economic thinking: pandering to the perceived mass — with celebrity, sensationalism, and the view from nowhere — to build sales and traffic over substance; devaluing our product by cutting the wrong things when faced with competitive pressures; lacking the strategic vision that would carry journalism into the digital economy. This is a case of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do, I’m afraid.

In a Twitter discussion this morning, Dave Winer and I parried on whether the tech industry needs to become the journalism industry or whether the journalism industry needs to become the tech industry. I’m not sure where that lands. I do see tech companies — Twitter, Tumblr, Google, Facebook, and more — hiring journalists. I see journalists using and relying on — perhaps too much — these companies. I see an opportunity for them to work together to set a line where we can build a new wall between church and state, between business and trust, by establishing principles that platforms — indeed, the internet itself — must live by.

I have nothing whatsoever against making business and journalism businesses. I believe they must be businesses to be sustainable. But they must be responsible businesses. They must learn where their value truly lies. That is in trust. Squander that trust and you lose it all.

Twitter has another moment to learn and then teach that lesson. Please.

Readers are our regulators

Here’s a post I put up on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (comment there).

Please resist the temptation to impose government regulation on journalism in the aftermath of phone-hacking. Oh, I know, it would be sweet justice for Murdoch pere et fils to be the cause of expanding government authority. But danger lies there. Regulation requires teeth and teeth carry power.

Let me begin by posing four questions:

What activities are to be regulated? Activities that are already criminal, like News Corp.’s, should be prosecuted as crimes. Then does speech itself become the target? In the United States, we grapple with this question in the one exception to our First Amendment, which is about to be tested in the Supreme Court. That loophole to the Bill of Rights gives the Federal Communications Commission authority to regulate and fine mere words on TV and radio. I have argued in the pages of the Guardian that “bullshit” is political speech but we are forbidden to speak it on our air — even about this regulation itself — under threat of a regulator’s chill and penalty. What we need today is more speech, not less.

What should a regulator do in the case of violations? Fine the offender into submission? Close the publication? Does that not give your government the same weapon used by dictators elsewhere against journalists? Doesn’t this return the UK to a regime of licensing the press? Remember that he who grants licenses may also not grant them or revoke them.

Who is the proper regulator? Clearly, it is not the industry. The Press Complaints Commission has proven to be nothing more than a diaphanous gown for the devil. But government? Is government the proper body to supervise the press, to set and oversee its standards? How could it be? The watched become the watchers’ watchers. Certainly government has shown itself to be incompetent and mightily conflicted in this case, as alleged overseers of the crimes at hand end up in high places and the police themselves are reported to be beneficiaries of corruption.

Finally, who is to be regulated? In other words, who is the press? That’s the key question raised here. Alan Rusbridger posed it in his forceful soliloquy on this amazing week: Is Huffington Post the press? Guido Fawkes? By extension, is any blogging citizen? Any YouTube commentator or Twitter witness-cum-reporter? Yes, we wrangle with this same question in the United States, but in the context of who should receive the rights and protections of the press — namely, shield laws — rather than who should be under the thumb of a government agency.

The goal must not be to further solidify the hegemony of the media-government complex but instead to bust it open. We have the tools at hand to do that: journalists, the public they serve, and their new tool of publicness, the internet.

As Rusbridger also said in that video, this was a week marked by the worst of journalism and the best of journalism. Reporting is wot did the bastards in. Nick Davies is the Woodward and Bernstein of the age though it’s a pity that his Nixon built his nearly absolute power — and nearly inevitable corruption — in our profession. The first and most important protection we will have against the likes of him is a business model for the Guardian to sustain Davies and support future generations like him. The second most important thing the Guardian can do is set an example for other journalists.

I was talking with Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, just yesterday about his cause and favorite obsession: fact-checking. There are scattered organizations that endeavor to check politicians’ and journalists mistakes and lies. But no organization can do it all. How do we scale fact-checking? My thought is that we should see every news organization place a box next to all its reports inviting fact-checking: readers flagging dubious assertions and journalists and readers picking up the challenge to investigate. The Washington Post and the Torrington (Connecticut) Register Citizen have them.

That small addition raises the standards and expectations for journalists’ work and, more importantly, opens the process of journalism to the public, inviting them to act as both watchers and collaborators.

I also think we must increase our diligence to all but eliminate the scourge of the anonymous source. Note that I left an opening for whistleblowers and victims and the too-rare true investigators like Davies. But if we had as an expectation that the News of the World should have told us where and how it learned what it learned about its 4,000 victims, it would have been less able to perpetrate its crimes of hacking and bribery.

The Guardian is making openness its hallmark and this is what it must mean: Rather than closing down journalism to some legislative definition of who may practice the craft, we must open its functions to all. Rather than enabling government and media to become even more entwined, we must explode their bonds and open up the business of both for all to see. Regulators, bureaucrats, politicians, and titans of a dying industry are not the ones to do that.

In researching my next book, Public Parts, I dared to read Jürgen Habermas and his theory of the public sphere. Habermas says the public sphere first emerged as a counterweight to the power of government in the rational, critical debate of the coffeehouses and salons of the 18th century. But almost as soon as this public sphere formed, Habermas laments, it was corrupted and overtaken by mass media. Now, at last, is our opportunity to reverse that flow and to recapture our public sphere.

There’s where this tale’s sweet irony lies: It’s Murdoch & Co. who set the charges to blow apart the very institutional power and cozy relationships they built.

: LATER: I’m disturbed by a fundamentally undemocratic theme I see in the comments here and at the Guardian: Some blame the public for the excesses of Murdoch, Inc. That’s essentially cynical and condescending toward the public. Some don’t trust the public to regulate media. If you distrust the public that much, then you might as well throw in the towel on democracy and freemarkets, not to mention journalism and education (why inform the public if they’re a mass of boobs?). But these folks — just like institutional media — better get used to the public having a greater voice and regulating their behavior, for that’s where we’re headed: back to the coffee house.

The ethic of identity

My ethic of identity is simple and clear: I stand by my words here and elsewhere with my name. I tell commenters that I will give them credence if they do likewise.

Elsewhere, online and in journalism, the ethic of identity is less clear today. Take as illustration the case of this post involving Politico and a bit of sockpuppetry from an employee of the newspaper in the comments.

The shortest possible synopsis: Politico’s Michael Calderone criticized Off the Bus’ Mayhill Fowler for criticizing Todd Purdum’s “hatchet job” on Bill Clinton — her words — and for misrepresenting herself — his word — when she questioned and recorded Clinton … and I, in turn, criticized Calderone parenthetically using this as an illustration of the clubbiness of the press. Calderone emailed me twice and then called me in short order to complain about my complaint and about the context (a discussion of race in newsrooms). We disagreed.

I arrived home and found a comment on my post that echoed his opinions closely under the name Mary. I looked up the IP and found it came from a Politico-related company. I responded to Mary and noted the source — and the irony that this appeared to be a person at Politico misrepresenting herself. Calderone emailed me saying he did not write the comment — which I hadn’t said — but acknowledged that a colleague did. He then left a comment on my post — which is how I would have preferred this discussion to have happened, in public. I looked at the IP address and it was identical to Mary’s. So I then asked him point-blank whether he wrote Mary’s comment. He said he did not and I take him at his word. I suppose the IP is the company’s firewall.

So I wrote to Politico’s editor, John Harris, asking his policy and views for this post. (Here is the complete email exchange.) On reporters’ identity, Harris said: “At Politico I expect reporters to identify themselves clearly as journalists when asking questions of public officials or average citizens alike. If there were exceptions to this, I would want as editor to be closely consulted about the reasons.”

But then I was rather shocked at what he said about hidden identity in comments — sockpuppetry: “My preference is that if Politico staff are going to engage in debates about journalism they do so with name attached. But the case of leaving comments on a blog or submitting a question to an on-line chat strikes me as not exactly involving sacred principles. When I was at the Post I would frequently send in questions under various to colleagues for their on-line chats, just to be mischievous. These days with a new publication I’m too busy for that nonsense. In any event, have you never done something similar?”

No, I have not. I am surprised that Harris would treat this as a prank even as he acknowledged that “Mary” not only did not reveal her Politico affiliation or reveal a last name but also gave a false first name. This is how you want your employees to act in a news organization? I would think that news organizations would be particularly sensitive to this after the cases of Lee Siegal of the New Republic and Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times.

I especially find it odd that Politico is not living up to the standard to which Calderone holds Mayhill Fowler. Why the slack? Well, after all, it’s only a blog and only a comment, eh? Said Harris: “I don’t get the fuss about the identity of the blog commenter.”

So what of Mayhill Fowler? I agree with Off the Bus cofounder (and friend) Jay Rosen that ideally, she would have revealed her affiliation to Clinton. But in a good profile of her in the LA Times, she makes it clear that her recorder was in the open. And I repeat my contention in my debate with the Guardian’s Michael Tomasky that this idea of playing by journalism’s rules becomes almost moot when journalism can done by any witness with a tape recorder and a blog. Says the Guardian’s Neil McIntosh:

I’m not sure how traditional journalistic rules of engagement (off the record, on the record, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) can be enforced when everyone has a camcorder in their pocket, and an easy way to reach millions via WordPress and some Googlejuice. In the reporting of public, or semi-public, or even private events where there are more than a few present, the only battle left is over who does the story best, and gets it up first.

This is about a few things: publicness., professionalism, and identity.

The acts of public figures in public places and even our lives there are now more public than ever. In an age that values transparency, I think that’s a good thing.

I understand the wistfulness for a set of professional rules carried out by a finite set of professionals. It seemed so in-control then. But I also think it is a very good thing that journalism and the sunshine it brings are opened wide. And my point to Calderone (and to Tomasky) was that we need to beware using these rules as a means to limit journalism to a closed club.

So now back to identity. This is more than an issue of professionalism (though I do think Politico and other news organizations should hold to a standard of open and persistent identity in their sets of rules). I think open and honest identity is an ethic for everyone online or off. Standing by your words and thoughts is a matter of etiquette and honor and respect for those with whom you are speaking. I believe that true identity is the secret to Facebook’s success. I see a layer of identity on the internet that will have higher value than the that without identity or with false identity.

If you want to disagree with what I say, great. But at least have the balls I do and say it under your own name.

: LATER: It gets worse. I got email from the person calling herself “Mary.” She misses the point by a mile. I won’t quote her by name; I leave it to her to have the guts to add her name to this discussion. She asked me not to post her email. I said sorry, but she works in public. I have to quote some of what she said:

My conduct seems standard practice. My stories frequently get hundreds scathing comments and spark harsh e-mails from readers that don’t identify themselves or where they work. If I’m interested in engaging further or curious whether they work for a particular campaign, I write them. . . .

This was the first time I’ve ever commented on a blog and I ended up embarrassed at work as a result, which leaves me questioning whether it’s worth it to join in on the great democratization of media.

Now that I realize anything I say can be escalated to my boss — without any obligation to contact me first — I think I’ll be staying off the Interwebs for a while.

Some of my response:

You miss the point by a mile.

This is a matter of honesty, integrity, and ethics.

You lied. You did not disclose your identity and affiliation. You even made up your name.

Should journalists lie? Ever?

Standard practice? God forbid. . . .

You say that you shouldn’t interact on the internet. That is precisely the wrong lesson to take from this. You should interact with your public but you should do so in a transparent and honest manner. . . .

I said more. I’ll spare you and her. Mind you, this is not a discussion with an unwashed blogger. This is a discussion with a journalist at a journalistic organization with a journalism degree. I find that shocking.

Truth is not a hard lesson to teach, is it?

: LATER STILL: Jacques Steinberg picks up on the Fowler story in tomorrow’s Times. There w have Jonathan Alter taking the clubby position and Jane Hamsher firing a grenade launcher through it:

“This makes it very difficult for the rest of us to do our jobs,” Jonathan Alter, a columnist and political reporter for Newsweek, said in an interview. “If you don’t have trust, you don’t get good stories. If someone comes along and uses deception to shatter that trust, she has hurt the very cause of a free flow of public information that she claims she wants to assist.”

“You identify yourself when you’re interviewing somebody,” Mr. Alter added. “It’s just a form of cheating not to.”

But to Jane Hamsher, a onetime Hollywood producer who founded Firedoglake, a politics-oriented Web site that tilts left, Mr. Alter’s rules of the road are in need of repaving. For starters, she said, the onus was on Mr. Clinton to establish who Ms. Fowler was before deciding to speak as he did. That he failed to quiz her at all, Ms. Hamsher said, was Mr. Clinton’s problem, not Ms. Fowler’s. As a result, Ms. Hamsher said, the public got to experience the unplugged musings of a former president (and candidate’s spouse) in a way that might never have been captured on tape by an old boy on the bus like Mr. Alter.

“It’s hurting America that journalists consider their first loyalty to be to their subjects, and not to the people they’re reporting for,” she said. Told, for example, that the Times ethics policy states that “staff members should disclose their identity to people they cover (whether face to face or otherwise),” Ms. Hamsher was dismissive. In the context of political reporting, she said, such guidelines are intended to “protect this clubby group of journalists and their high-ranking political subjects, and keep access to themselves.”

“That,” she added, “is not the world we’re living in anymore.”

Well, just one more

I promised I’d stop writing about Cleveland. But as a dishonorable blogger, I honor no promises….

Jay Rosen summed up what I was trying to say in one eloquent line; he has a habit of doing that: “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.”

Danny Glover thinks I was tough on Cleveland — we do disagree — but note that inherent in what he says is the bloggers’ ethic of transparency. He says the blogger erred in not disclosing his donation — though I do believe he hadn’t written about the campaign in question yet. And the paper didn’t ask them to disclose all their ties and donations. But note that if the paper had, then it would set a precedent — welcome from my viewpoint — of requiring such disclosure of all its staff members as well. So Danny is operating from the other set of ethics.

Now go to Adrian Monck in London, who is far away from Cleveland, he’ll be happy to tell you, and is writing nothing about it. He’s writing instead about the BBC and its 12 pillars of behavior and ethics, including this one: “Impartiality is no excuse for insipid programming. It allows room for fair-minded, evidence-based judgments by senior journalists and documentary-makers, and for controversial, passionate and polemical arguments by contributors and writers.” Adrian’s response: “Get that? Journalists – fair-minded, evidence-based. Contributors – controversial, passionate and polemical. Helpful, eh?”

This entire tale is not about one tribe having ethics, the other not. That’s what was so grossly insulting, self-centered, and truly self-righteous about the Plain Dealer’s treatment of the bloggers. They thought the other guys didn’t have any. Instead, this should be about one tribe trying to understand — and learn from — the ethics of the other. The Plain Dealer didn’t try. That is its loss.

Enough.

Old-school values

In the comments on the post/book immediately below, my friend Fred Wilson said I was sticking with old-school notions. I left this comment in response and think it’s worth bringing the discussion out here:

In journalism education, I talk a lot about the need to rewrite and break rules, to end old assumptions, to work with new realities. I talk about it far too much for the taste of some (many, actually).

But I also talk about the values that are worth maintaining and preserving. Credibility is the essence of that. Not selling your voice is the key to credibility. It is the foundation of independence. There are other worthy values I talk about, too: fairness, accuracy, completeness. And this week on Newshour, I included in the discussion the ethics I have learned from the blogosphere: the ethic of the correction, of the link, and of transparency.

In the professional arena, I also talk a lot about the need to reexamine the wall between church and state, the need for journalists themselves to take responsibility for the sustainability of journalism.

But that makes is all the more important that we understand how to maintain independence and credibility. That makes these selected “old-school” values all the more critical.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers oneself a journalist, though. Credibility is the same for all of us. Our readers expect us to speak with them directly, as trusted friends. My neighbors aren’t paid to speak to me. No one is (yet) trying to buy their voices. I expect the same here.

I don’t want to tear down all the old schools. I want to update them.

And I clearly believe in the importance of advertiser support for media, including the media of the people. But that, too, is why I think it is important to have these discussions openly and in detail, so that bloggers will build and maintain their credibility. For if they lose their credibility, they lose their value both to their readers and to their advertisers. That much has not changed: Advertisers, including Microsoft, want to be associated with people of who have the respect of their shared public.

Buying their voices

Federated Media stepped in it with their latest campaign, getting some of its bloggers to issue not so bon mots on behalf of a not so bon advertiser, Microsoft.

I tried to warn Federated when I adamantly turned down two prior similar campaigns, telling them that this would reflect poorly on the bloggers who do it, possibly on bloggers as a whole, on the network itself, and in the end on the advertisers. But they kept trying to push the boundaries, because that’s what advertisers and thus sales people do.

So ultimately, this is a cautionary tale for all bloggers who take ads: You must set your own boundaries and not let them be pushed. When you do — whatever those boundaries are — that is the very definition of selling out.

In each of these cases, the advertiser’s effort is to get more closely associated with us, our content, our reputations, our brands. They’d like get into our pants mouths. They want us to speak their names. Nicely. Or at least be near them, associated with them. This happens at every editorial product I know and it becomes incumbent upon their editors to resist and to protect their integrity from integration — if, indeed, that matters to them (and in many cases, such as entertainment shows — Coke glasses on the American Idol desk — it doesn’t). Advertisers can’t get us to endorse their products directly — unless we’re PayPerPosties or actors — and so they try to find some way that we can say something nice somewhere else. That’s what happened in this case, after much Talmudic wrestling that still strikes me as the congregant asking the rabbi for permission to have an affair… with a shiksa… on a pig farm… on a Saturday… for money.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now: The rules are obvious. Our readers should not be confused about the source of what they read. If it is paid for, that should be labeled as advertising. In editorial environments, our voice and our space cannot be bought — or it is not editorial; it is, by definition, advertising. Not every media property needs to follow these rules; entertainment, for example, is not editorial. But this is the essential rule that allows us to accept advertising to support publications without losing our credibility.

First, I’ll give the background of the current case to those who, having taken a weekend day off, had not seen it on Techmeme. And then (at the three asterisks below) I will give you my history and the emails I sent to Federated on this last year.

The current case: On Friday, Nick Denton at Valleywag gave proper a tongue-lashing to Federated and the prominent bloggers in the ad network — Om Malik, Michael Arrington, Fred Wilson, Paul Kedrosky, Matt Marshall (plus Richard MacManus, Mike Davidson, and Federated founder John Battelle) — who agreed to give pappy quotes over their names for a platitudinous campaign about business that is “people-ready,” said quotes appearing on a minisite Federated made for Microsoft and on banner ads. We, the public, are supposed to become so engaged in this fit of interactivity that we vote for our favorite cant (does the winner go on a bumper sticker? a t-shirt? a blimp?) and submit our own people-ready stories. If this felt any more stretched, it’d be taffy. But note how they try to get the bloggers to lend their names and voices even if not on their sites and not about the product but still under the advertiser’s brand. Didn’t fool Denton:

I can’t blame Battelle’s team for latching on to this idea. The campaign is slick; and Microsoft is a deep-pocketed client. But it’s disappointing that so many of his most reputable writers have signed on as spokespeople. One would have thought that tech opinion-leaders as influential as Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky would ration their credibility more carefully, and reserve it for companies and products for which they felt real enthusiasm.

This is why I love the Brits: understatement.

Om Malik, to his considerable credit, back-pedaled quickly:

So without making any excuses, to my readers, if participation in Microsoft’s advertising campaign has made you doubt my integrity even for a second, then I apologize.

I have requested Federated Media, our sales partners, suspend the campaign on our network of sites, and they have. We are turning off any such campaigns that might be running on our network. Would I participate in a similar campaign again? Nothing is worth gambling the readers’ trust. Conversational marketing is a developing format, and clearly the rules are not fully defined. If the readers feel a line was crossed, I’ll will defer to their better judgement.

The fact of the matter is that the original premise of the campaign was to give my thoughts by what People Ready meant to me – it wasn’t an endorsement of a specific Microsoft product. (You can read it here, and judge for yourself.) Nor did my words run in any portion of our editorial space. Microsoft asked us to join a conversation, and we did. I wasn’t paid to participate in the conversation, but Microsoft ran an ad-campaign that paid us on the basis of CPM.

But today the campaign, which has been running for close to two months, brought up doubt about my editorial integrity for some of you.

In the future I shall focus on what I know best – reporting and writing.

Good on Om. He was clearly seduced by some silver-tongued ad sales guy but has thought better of it. So has Paul Kedrosky: “…I still should have taken more time and said “No” to an ad whose style could so easily be misconstrued.” Fred Wilson has not thought better of it and called Nick so old school for sticking to these rules (Fred, some rules are worth keeping). Ditto Michael Arrington, who tells critics to “pound sand” and argues that it’s clearly an ad. Absolutely right, but it’s still an ad with your words in it. Except then Mike reveals these aren’t necessarily their words: “…generally FM suggests some language and we approve or tweak it to make it less lame. The ads go up, we get paid.”

Clearly, Federated has not thought better of it. Their new VP of author relations, Neil Chase, a topnotch editor who just left the New York Times for this gig, responded to Denton trying to justify this self-delusion by taking lipstick and writing the label “conversational marketing” on the pig:

ValleyWag today suggests that one of FM’s conversational marketing campaigns is hurting the editorial integrity of our authors. It says that Microsoft paid them to write, which is simply not true. They were invited to join a conversation with readers about Microsoft’s new theme, and they did so, but they didn’t write about it on their blogs. The only money they get from Microsoft is from ads running on their sites, for which they’re paid by the page view.

Well, but they were paid. Mike Arrington’s laudably candid on that point. They were paid for the media rather than the creative, as we say. In publishing, we call this “value added.” Some media companies insist that they won’t negotiate their rates but then they throw in extra stuff — parties, goodies, extra ads elsewhere — to essentially lower the price. The value-added in this case was the bloggers’ words. Neil continues in his comment to Nick:

Welcome to the birth of conversational marketing.

It’s making people like you and me, who came from the world of traditional newspapers, have to learn about three-way conversations. We have already witnessed the evolution of the two-way conversation among authors and readers that is replacing old-fashioned one-way journalism. Even our old employers (yours at the Financial Times, mine at The New York Times) are now actively bringing their readers into two-way conversations.

So the next step, naturally, is for marketers to want to join the conversation. It can be done in ethical, responsible ways, and FM’s authors are among the first to figure out how to do it.

Uh, Neil, I think you’re jumping to a conclusion there and if you listen to the conversation about this “conversation,” you might think otherwise. Hear Charles Cooper at CNet: “Why would ostensibly independent voices come across as Microsoft shills?” Here‘s Ashkan Karbasfrooshan joining the discussion: “Frankly, it makes me distance from MSFT, dislike Battelle’s tactic (note singular John) and distrust what the bloggers have to say.” Neil continues:

We’re carefully expanding conversational marketing based on all kinds of new ideas that are coming from authors, marketers and our sales reps. We’re drafting a set of principles for conversational marketing that will help everyone, inside FM and across the industry, frame the discussion about how we do this the right way. And we’re taking care at every step of the process to make sure we don’t compromise the editorial integrity of our authors.

I’d say it should have been drafted long ago.

* * *

I pulled out email from September 11, 2006, from a Federated rep trying to get me into a similar program, this one with Cisco trying to get such bromides from bloggers for its effort to associate itself with the phrase “human network.” Worse, in this case, they wanted to write a Wikipedia article about the network to get their brand in there. I call that knowledge spam. I was told that if I chose to participate, my definition of “human network” — which I would deliver after they gave me a “seed definition” — would appear in an ad on Buzzmachine. The net to me for this opportunity would have been $559. I said no. And I gave them some free advice:

This will get them KILLED in the net. It is wikipedia spam. It is not transparent. It is wrong for them and wrong for me and I would say for FM.

I was told in email that the client decided to change how the Wikipedia entry was made, but they still made it. The original is here; the latest here. [*See note below.] I pressed on in a subsequent email:

I’m afraid they are still on the dark side. You just can’t put something with commercial motive into Wikipedia. Admitting it is hardly better; it is still a crime. The Wikipedians and bloggers will attack hard and they will deserve what they get.

And I cannot stand behind an advertiser getting me to write something for pay. In most quarters — in quality, reliable, editorial, credible blogs — that is equally a crime. You cannot buy my editorial voice or space; that is the very essence of church/state in any journalistic context; that is what I have told everyone who has ever worked for me whether on a newspaper, on a magazine, or online. . . .

I want to stay as far away from this as possible. And I will still counsel that FM should also. If you’re going to sell your soul, I suggest doing it for a fuck of a lot more than $559! Not that someone cannot choose PR and press-release writing as a career, but I would hope that is not what FM stands for.

This tactic came up again in a campaign for a gadget (I don’t know whether the campaign ever ran, so I’ll keep the brand confidential). This time, we were expected to write directly about the product with positive sentiment. I’d say that’s the definition of a product endorsement. I turned it down and responded: “This is pay-for-post and I will not do it and condemned it today on my blog.” They came back and said, well, it’s not an endorsement but a personal anecdote of a time when I appreciated the kind of ability this device afforded — if I owned that brand of device. I came back and said: “I fear that this could blow up in Federated’s face.” I laid out the same rules I repeated above and added: “It’s one matter for an advertiser to pick up something we say as a blurb; happens to movie critics all the time. It’s another to assign and pay for a blogger to write something about the product. You can say that’s not endorsement but I’d say it sure smells like it.”

My real advice to them, relevant today:

I suggest that Federated have a policy on the relationship of its bloggers with advertisers. I would argue that in the church-v-state of this media and journalism world, you need to be the state and create a wall that allows us to be the church. You have the contact with the advertisers; we don’t. And I would further suggest that the editorial voice and space of Federated bloggers is not for sale. Whether you want that policy is up to you and the FM bloggers; but that will remain my policy. I think there is an opportunity to pull up above others and work on a higher plain. I also think that having such a policy makes it easier with advertisers: You have something to point to. I’d be happy to help with brainstorming such a policy. . . . My two cents. Just trying to be helpful. . .

Never had that brainstorming.

So now I’m disagreeing with myself. In that last email, I put the onus on Federated to come up with that policy. And though I still think that would be principled and wise, I shift at the top of this too-long post when I say that I now believe it’s the bloggers who must make these calls. That’s because advertisers will be advertisers; they will try to push for more integration with us (and we should beware taking that as flattery). And sales people will be sales people; they will try hard to get the sale. So we bloggers are left, inevitably, with the need to say no. I also generally oppose efforts to create omnibus codes. I can wish others would operate in a certain way and I can judge them accordingly. But I’ll just speak for myself with my advertising policy in greater detail:

1. My voice is not for sale. No one can pay me to say what they want me to say.
2. My editorial space is not for sale. I accept advertising and it must be clearly labeled.
3. When I am paid to write (as in a freelance article) or to speak, I will still determine what I say and I will disclose that relationship.
4. I will attempt to disclose relevant financial relationships so you are free to judge me and my words accordingly.
5. In some cases, such a relationship will prevent me from speaking on a subject (as in talking in detail about an employer). However, I will not be compelled to speak because of such a relationship.
6. If I say something openly and freely here, it may be quoted by a commercial entity (the blurb) but I will not be compensated for that.
7. My acceptance of advertising here does not constitute an endorsement of the advertiser. However, I will at times turn down advertising I find unacceptable.
8. I recognize that many blog, vlogs, etc. do not pretend to live by editorial standards and that is their right and freedom. But when they say some things, I will need to take when they say with appropriate salt.
9. I have financial relationships with others who do not follow these rules and in many cases I do not believe these rules apply to them (e.g., entertainment). I enjoy and respect many sites and products that do not follow these rules, but I expect to be able to find out what rules they operate by. I believe one’s rules and relationships should be disclosed.
10. I do not believe I have a price at which I would sell out. But if I did, I can say I certainly haven’t seen it yet.

* * *

Some more blog comment on this. From Sam Harrelson:

And here’s the lesson to be learned from all of this, whether you’re in the Technorati 100 or Technorati 100,000…

Pay Per Post, Review Me, or accepting money in exchange for some sort of content production (whether a full post or a small block of text) comes across as slimy to your readers, hurts your credibility and does more long term brand damage to your blog and your brand than short term (monetary) good.

The only reason to engage in these sorts of schemes is to make a few quick bucks… but it’s not worth your blog’s soul. . . .

In our post-modern world, ideas such as “trust,” “objectivity,” “disclosure,” and “reliability” have been turned over and rendered subjective. That doesn’t mean that these terms are meaningless, it means that things like trust are now subjective in the eyes of the beholders. Authorial (or editorial), on the other hand, is meaningless. How I perceive you means everything.

He said it better — and briefer — than I did.

Kent Newsome:

t’s about whether or not you want to be the blogosphere equivalent of Suzanne Somers hawking a ThighMaster. It’s about the crossroads between cash and credibility.

All we have as bloggers is our reputation and our track record. No ad campaign is worth risking that, regardless of whether it crosses any ethical line. This is more about common sense than ethics.

Dave Winer says:

… But to imply that everyone knows they’re doing it is wrong. I didn’t. I’m sure others didn’t as well.

Second, and this is the really important one. It’s one thing to let Microsoft buy space on your site (it’s called advertising) and quite another to accept Microsoft money for words coming out of your mouth. Next month when we read something positive on these sites about Microsoft, how are we supposed to know if it’s an opinion, or just another example of being paid to say something supportive of Microsoft.

The only one of the people involved who showed any interest in what others think is Om Malik, and even his interest was conditional. In public writing, what people think of your writing is very important. They may not agree with you, they may not like what you say, they may not like you, but you want to be sure they know where you’re coming from. Any doubt about that removes value from your work. Do it often enough and it removes all value.

Mike says that this discussion cost him money that he needs to make payroll. I encourage him to look at a bigger picture. Any cloud over his integrity with readers will have a much bigger impact, imho.

: * LATER: John Battelle left this comment, which he also sent in email:

Jeff –
In fact, on the Cisco campaign, in now way did Cisco spam Wikipedia. They wanted to post a wiki version of their definition, and naturally their first thought was Wikipedia. Thanks to input like yours and many others, they did it on Wikia, the commercial cousin to Wikipedia. In fact, they sought out Jimmy Wales’ advice on the matter. The entry was later put up on Wikipedia by one it its editors, independently. Why? Because Cisco sponsored an honest conversation. Is it somehow illegal for companies to be part of a conversation? I really find that presumption offensive. Why can’t companies, which as the Cluetrain reminds us are just made up of people, be part of a conversation, and invite leader into that conversation? I’ll be posting more on this later, but I wanted to clear that up.

I never said “illegal.” I’m also taken aback by Battelle’s effort to be the offended party. I don’t know who posted the “article” and how it got there, yet it got there and the end result is the same. But there is Battelle’s stand.

: See also Fred Wilson’s response in the comments and my two responses, in turn.

: And here is Battelle’s post defending what he sees as “conversational marketing.” He says it’s new. I think it’s very old: It’s advertorial. I, for one, won’t contribute to advertorials. He also says that advertisers have a right to be part of the conversation. Of course; I don’t hear anyone arguing with that. The question is how they get there.

: THE NEXT DAY: Jackie Danicki asks why I didn’t write about this at the time. I did here. As I explain in the comments on Jackie’s post, I didn’t reveal the parties involved because this was business; they were just pitches at the time; I didn’t think the campaigns had actually gone through (my bad assumption); and I think discussing the issues is what matters here. This isn’t an expose. It’s a necessary discussion for bloggers. See also my response to Scoble on that point in the comments below.