First They Came for the Bloggers
I distinctly recall — maybe nine, 10 years ago — telling a roomful of bloggers that given the penchant found in the American governing class for regulating that which it does not understand, the day would soon come when political blogging would be subject to the same government disclosure rules as broadcasting and mass-mailing. The polite eye-roll was a common response.
Now California — where else? — seems ready to impose disclosure requirements on bloggers who receive “payment” from campaigns. Incidentally, only McClatchy could headline a story on the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission — the government agency charged with investigating and enforcing the state’s campaign finance and disclosure laws — by calling the FPPC a “watchdog group.”
The leader of the state’s political watchdog agency said Thursday that she wants bloggers to be required to disclose payments received from campaigns.
"The public should know about such a connection in the political arena so they can properly evaluate endorsements," Chairwoman Ann Ravel said. …
… Ravel said she initially will ask the FPPC to adopt guidelines asking bloggers to disclose before the November presidential election.
Her goal for future elections is mandatory disclosure, Ravel said.
"I think this is one of those issues that’s extremely controversial, so it needs to be done incrementally," Ravel said. "But my view is, it should ultimately be required."
Presumably Ms. Ravel is unaware that blog readers, via such revolutionary concepts as comment sections, regularly demand bloggers disclose any connections to the political campaigns and candidates they cover. There is simply no tangible evidence that the voting public is somehow being snowed by secret hirelings of rogue campaigns and their consultants.
And speaking of comments — what of payments to commenters? There is absolutely no doubt comment sections of many politically hot blogs are full of shills drawing paychecks from interested parties. How shall that be disclosed to the broad public?
Is there any difference between a political operative paid to blog and one paid to respond to blogs?
Here’s an even grayer area — should government employees at all times be required to disclose their employer and possible bias when they comment anonymously on political blogs? Again this is no idle speculation. Pick any hot state or local fiscal topic, and I guarantee a healthy bit of the speech on any blog is coming from those with a vested interest in the outcome. And I think that is great. Over to you Ms. Ravel.
But there is even a deeper disconnect embedded in what the regulators want. If payment to a blog requires disclosure, it must be because that payment induced the creation of something of value to a campaign or candidate — an endorsement or a hit piece on an opponent. It follows then that the non-payment to blog for an endorsement or hit piece must constitute an in-kind contribution to a campaign. A contribution that must be reported to the government. Right?
Such is the zero-sum thinking at work among the speech regulators when they turn to the scary, spooky Internet. Where are the gatekeepers? Where are the rules? Nothing is ever what it seems, everything has a price.
The motives of newspapers or TV stations are never at issue when the gnarly intersection of political coverage, commentary, and advertising sporadically pops into view. But those bloggers — anything for a buck. Besides, who are they?
This is the bit that drives me around the bend. Most political bloggers really don’t blog for money — or worse, for the highest bidder. Instead it is passion and principle that drive them.
No wonder government bureaucrats do not know what to make of them.
Update: Boo-yah! Here’s Big Media lobbying against FCC-mandated disclosure of the money they get from political campaigns. What a shock.