Why Blogging for Hire is a Bad Idea

Monday, February 26, 2007

Blogger Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise explains how she dodged the bullet that found its mark in Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan. Her article in Salon should be required reading for bloggers as they define their roles in the political arena. At some point you have to decide if you're going to be a citizen journalist or a publicist, because you can't be both.

Just ask Armstrong Williams how well it works to mix the worlds of political commentary and payola, even if you believe in the cause you're being paid to espouse. There's a reason he didn't disclose that he was a paid operative. It would have made his appeals seem as disingenuous as Howard Sterne's pitches for Snapple. And by failing to reveal it, he found himself discredited and scandalized.

Interviewed for a job by an operative from the John Edwards campaign, Beyerstein asked all the right questions of herself and "Bob." Questions the Edwards campaign should have considered a little more carefully before wading into that minefield.

As we walked, Bob downloaded his vision: The whole Edwards campaign was going to be a decentralized grass-roots operation.

"Elizabeth Edwards gets it," he said with unabashed admiration.

We settled into the back of a small, brightly lit shawarma joint and ordered baklava. After this heartfelt pitch, Bob asked me if I was interested in blogging for the Edwards campaign.

I was dazzled by Edwards' speech, Bob's vision and the sense that I might be on the verge of the big time. I wanted to jump on the bus, but I knew I couldn't.

"I'm probably not ... the person you want," I said, finally. "I mean, I'm on the record saying that abortion is good and that all drugs should be legalized, including heroin. Don't you think that might be a little embarrassing for the campaign?"

Bob assured me that my controversial posts weren't a problem as far as the campaign was concerned. They were familiar with my work. And Bob did seem to know my writing. I didn't get the impression he was a daily reader, but it was obvious he had been reading the blog for a while.

"That's you, that's not John Edwards," he said.

To her credit she wasn't just concerned about how her more incendiary ideas might impact John Edwards. She considered how being on the payroll of a political campaign would affect her as an independent blogger and a readership that counts on her independence.

I asked if I would have to quit blogging at Majikthise in order to take the job with Edwards. My blog means more to me than any job I've ever had. After three years of hard work, I finally have a platform from which to express ideas that won't get a hearing in the established media, let alone in mainstream Democratic politics. So the prospect of giving up my untrammeled freedom to blog press releases for John Edwards gave me pause. Still, I assumed Bob would say it was a necessity.

I was wrong. Bob promised that I wouldn't have to give up my personal blog. He added that I probably wouldn't have much time left for personal blogging, since everyone was working 18-hour days on the campaign. But, he noted, he hadn't given up his own blog, and neither had another member of the Edwards Internet team.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. A bunch of Internet staffers with private blogs sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. . . .
And aside from the risks to the campaign, I wasn't sure this arrangement would be healthy for my blog. With this responsibility weighing on my mind, how could I continue to deliver the independent perspective that my readers value? If I were suddenly on a candidate's payroll, yet still posting my own "independent" thoughts on Majikthise, what would my longtime readers think? Would they still trust me? Should they? Full disclosure wasn't going to solve the problem of divided loyalties. [emphasis mine]

She explained these concerns to "Bob" who it appears did not get it.

I tried to suggest that the campaign might not want high-profile bloggers. I thought it might be better off hiring a well-connected political operative with good connections in the blogosphere. . . .
If you hire these larger-than-life personalities to blog for John Edwards, they'll have to stop espousing many of the radical policy positions and unconventional values that made them popular in the first place.

Fans will also know when a John Edwards message conflicts with the bloggers' own record on an issue. Big-name bloggers hired by campaigns will be accused of "selling out" and open themselves up to accusations of hypocrisy from both sides. [emphasis mine]

Beyerstein ultimately took a pass, trying instead for a photography job, which would have allowed her to cover the campaign, without giving up her independent voice as a blogger. The Edwards campaign moved on to Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, and the rest is history.

Beyerstein hits on the central conundrum that makes the idea of paying grassroots supporters oxymoronic.

The Edwards campaign wants decentralized people-powered politics. Ironically, by hiring well-known bloggers to manage a destination Web site, it was actually centralizing and micromanaging.

If political campaigns want so badly to court the netroots, they should put a little more energy into listening to the ideas and concerns of left wing bloggers, not paying to put words in their mouths.