Church v. state v. congregation: Once more into the jaws…

Church v. state v. congregation: Once more into the jaws…

: I’ve been thinking today about the Zephyr/Kos et al flap and what it means for our emerging culture: namely, the need to separate church and state — and congregation and so on — and the need for an ethic of exhibitionism. At the risk of stirring up more dioxin-rich sediment, I’ll post once more on this. [See one more caveat below.*]

Something either Kos or Jerome said resonated with me and I’m sorry I can’t find it now under the current mudslide of verbiage from all sides: One of them said he was not a journalist but an activist.

Well, of course: This is, as we often say, just a tool, this blogging thing. And it will be used by many people in many different ways. Just because it looks like media, sounds like media, and smells like media, that doesn’t mean it is media.

It can be activism or advocacy or business or conversation or education or marketing … or journalism. But that can also be confusing: It can be activism, but some people can understandably think it’s trying to be journalism — and, indeed, it may be both. We need to find ways to make sure we don’t confuse our publics. The issue this raises is about transparency, yes, but it’s more about expectations. It’s about the separation of church and state — and congregation… and marketplace… and academy… and fortress…

In old, estasblished media, this separation was pretty easy to manage (even though we often didn’t manage it well): There’s content and there’s advertising and as I said the other day, a wise editor once taught me the only rule is that consumers should never be confused about the source of content; if it’s paid for, that has to be clearly labeled; and nobody can ever buy our journalistic space or voice.

But now there are so many more possibilities. So Kos can be an activist and if a campaign pays him for consulting, he’s saying (I think) that should be no surprise; he is already an advocate and he clearly announced the relationship. And I have no problem with that or with advocacy media. Hell, I suggested the other day — not a joke — that the DNC should just buy CBS. My view is that the more open the perspectives are, the better. And the more perspectives we have, the better.

But — to use Kos as an example, or political consultant and Bopnews blogger Matt Stoller, now apparently working or speaking for would-be DNC chair Simon Rosenberg — the question is whether readers coming to a permalink of a post on these blogs knows they are reading through the prism of an advocate with a formal relationship to campaigns.

When they read the new auto blog by design czar Bob Lutz, do they know he’s vice-chairman of GM (well, the GM logos sure help!). When they read news on Instapundit, do they realize — as Glenn says frequently — that they’re reading the news through the idiosyncratic interests and perspective of a law prof? When they come to my blog and read my about, paragraph, do they know I’m a big-media careerist who comments on media? And is that enough? Should my about link include the fact that I voted for Kerry (so I don’t keep repeating that) and supported the liberation of Iraq and go to church and own (a little) Sirius stock?

Should all bloggers reveal their biases and agendas as well as their financial relationships and personal relationships? We are building an ethic of exhibitionism: We all stand naked on the public square with no agenda hidden. We believe we should all be emperors with new clothes. So how much is too much? How little is too little? We don’t know yet. And that is precisely why it is good that we are talking about this. That is why this discussion — stripped of all the spittle and bile — is worthwhile.

In the end, this is all about integrity. We need to make sure we never try to mislead our publics or we will lose their trust and attention. Lists of ethical standards won’t handle that. Good sense and good faith will. In that sense, there is absolutely nothing new about this discussion

: On the radio the other day, I told a story I don’t think I’ve told here (stop me if I have): When I was the TV critic at People, owned by Time Inc., which also owned HBO, I gave the new cable network bad reviews because — back then, before it became the creator of the best shows on TV — it emphasized only two three things: bad words and breasts. The then-head of HBO screamed up the corporate ladder about me; the shouts came back down to the editor of People, Pat Ryan, and she just shouted back up the ladder. She had the courage and integrity to put our editorial independence first. When I was in that same job, I panned Hallmark Hall of Fame shows and Hallmark pulled its ads as a result. I shouldn’t have known that because it could be argued that this might influence me one way or another, but an ad salesperson told me (out of obvious self-interest). So, when I started Entertainment Weekly, I decreed that the sales department should never tell my critics and editors anything about sales. While at the helm of EW, dealing with the rough spots in a launch, the then-top-editors at Time Inc. — lately starstruck as the company merged with Warner Bros. — said we were being too tough on entertainment. A high-paid editorial executive actually sat down and calculated the grade-point average of our reviews and — I was reminded when I came across one of the resignation letters I drafted back then — they tried to get me to stop handing out F’s. For this reason among others, I quit.

No rule of ethics from the company or the community would have dealt with all this. Only personal integrity would — only the knowledge that the only relationship that really matters is ours with our public.

: [*One more — one last — caveat on all this: I repeat that I am not saying that Kos or Jerome did anything wrong with the Dean campaign. Kos revealed his relationship; Jerome stopped blogging. I will also repeat that if anyone did anything wrong, it could be argued that it’s the Dean campaign for trying to buy mouthpieces without revealing that motive. I have no basis to know the full truth of what Zephyr Teachout has said in all this or to understand all the venom we’re reading about this. But I do know that in any case this raises important questions about our new culture and so it is worth discussing … with civility and intelligence.]

: One more: Chris Nolan says everyone in this flap — Zephyr, Kos, et al — are acting politically.

: Tomorrow, I’ll also blog about personal tags in this context.

: LATER: Just to be clear, I put this in the comments: When I say “congregation” I’m being metaphorical as we are when we refer to the business side of a magazine as “state” and editorial as “church.” By extension, I see the congregation as the citizenry (audience, consumers, voters). I’m not talking religion.