September 2006 "Easy Calls"
  • This political season, many campaigns are paying ideologically friendly bloggers to get their message, often a negative message about their opponents, out into the blogosphere. The money is welcome, because unlike traditional journalists, most bloggers don't get paid for their efforts. It is also corrupting. Yes, most of the blogs so blessed by the campaigns are revealing their deals to readers, and then still swear that their opinions won't be influenced. Disgraced columnist Armstrong Williams made the same claim when he was found to be getting money from those whose policies he supported in his published columns; sorry, it just doesn't wash. Once a blogger accepts money from a party, campaign or individual who expects to benefit from his or her commentary, it creates a conflict of interest that leeches all future opinions of credibility. It is now officially and unavoidable biased. It is as if the Post's resident thorn in the side of the Bush Administration, Dana Milbank, announced that he was on the payroll of the DNC. The Scoreboard is sympathetic: it sure would be nice to have somebody else pay the bills. But bloggers and ethics critics can't have it both ways, proclaiming their independence and then accepting "support" from interested parties. Is it ethical for the campaigns to offer the money, as long as it is supported? Sure: from their standpoint, they are buying a PR vehicle. Is it ethical for a blogger to accept it? Only if the blog is honest about what it has become: a flack, bought and paid for. [9/20/2006]
  • On the old Perry Mason TV show, Perry's crack investigator Paul Drake was not above impersonating people to get the phone company to give him the records of their telephone calls. He was a "good guy," as was James Garner's Jim Rockford of "The Rockford Files," a somewhat seedy private investigator who carried piles of fake ID cards with him. But that's "TV Land" stuff. When Hewlett-Packard's chairwoman asked for an investigation into anonymous leaks to the press by board members, HP hired investigators who then used Paul and Jim's tactic, known as "pretexting," to acquire not only the phone records of board members but also reporters covering the company…the potential leakers as well as the leakees. But hiring people who use tricks, lies and fraud to do your dirty work is just as unethical as the tricks they use. Hewlett-Packard is ethically responsible for asking investigators to acquire information without setting ground rules about how they could go about doing it. The company may escape legal prosecution if it did not hire these investigators directly ("pretexting" is against the law), but their ethical culpability remains unchanged. They should know how investigators sometimes behave. After all, they've seen "The Rockford Files." [9/14/2006]
  • It's official: Dan Rather really, really doesn't get it. Astoundingly, he has recruited fired CBS producer Mary Mapes to join him making news documentaries and features at Rather's Elba, Mark Cuban's HDNet cable network. Mapes, you may remember, was responsible for using a faked document as the centerpiece for a Rather story questioning President Bush's National Guard service. She has defiantly refused to acknowledge the ethical problems with her decision to use the letter without adequate authentication, even doing so in the middle of a close presidential campaign, essentially taking the position that it is acceptable to use faked evidence to prove what you are certain is true. Hers is the same principle that self-righteous police and prosecutors once used to send innocent men to their executions. Rather's volitional reunion with Mapes constitutes a knowing validation and endorsement of her methods, which are anathema to good journalistic ethics. It tells us that Dan Rather, the journalist, can no longer be trusted, and perhaps never should have been. Katie Couric does not have such big shoes to fill at CBS News after all. We should all hope, in fact, that Rather's shoes are too small for her. [9/10/2006]

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