Friday, November 2, 2007

Political Pressure And The New Media

Cross posted from my KELO blog.

A story out of my old home town of Cleveland caught my eye a few days ago and I have been following it with great interest ever since. The Cleveland Plain Dealer which could be considered the Argus Leader of Ohio decided to try and mix the old media with the new and hired 4 of the states more popular political bloggers to write for them on their new project, Wide Open. The 4 bloggers they hired represented pretty much all sides of the political spectrum and were given what they were told was wide latitude on what they could write. Then shortly after the project launched, it crashed and burned with the newspaper and a popular Congressman embroiled in a truckload of criticism from all sides.

You may be asking yourself how does a story from Cleveland mean anything to us here in South Dakota? Blogs have been around for quite a few years now but until fairly recently, they didn't mix well with the mainstream media. Slowly over the last half dozen years or so the old media has started embracing the new media. The Rapid City Journal has Mt. Blogmore, The Argus Leader has their Voices blog and KELO TV has their blog section featuring individual blogs from some of their on and off air personalities.

In August, KELO decided to carry that new media idea to a different level when they recruited myself and 7 other South Dakota bloggers for their political blogs section. If you think about it that was quite a leap of faith as in essence they were providing space for 8 regular South Dakotan's with widely varying life experience and opinions and gave them free reign (within reason) to write about politics. Six weeks or so ago, the Cleveland Plain Dealer did the same thing. After 3 months, the KELO project is still going strong and the PD project is going down in flames.

So what happened in Cleveland?

One of the bloggers on the Plain Dealer project, Jeff Coryell, happened to have been an outspoken critic of one of Ohio's more popular Congressmen Steve LaTourette and had in fact spent a lot of time and blog ink on his own site discussing possible links between LaTourette and disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This blogger also ended up being a donor to the campaign of LaTourette's challenger during the 2006 election when he sent a $100 check to the campaign. Once the PD project lifted off LaTourette apparently recognized that this critic of his was now writing for the Plain Dealer and went to the paper demanding that he be let go even though Coryell had yet to even write a word about the congressman on the PD blog.

Earlier this week the Plain Dealer relented to LaTourette's pressure and fired Coryell but unfortunately for the PD and the Congressman, the story didn't end there. Soon after the firing, the other democratic blogger resigned and the 2 other bloggers announced that they were abandoning the project as well all but ending the Plain Dealer project. Topping off the debacle, the Ohio blogosphere is now ganging together to rip the Plain Dealer in a rare show of blogger bi-partisanship.

Congressman LaTourette is not getting away unscathed either. Coryell's story has been picked up by several popular national blogs including DailyKOS among others which has now taken one local blogger and put him onto the national stage. LaTourette, who until he pressured the Plain Dealer only had to deal with a tiny gnat now must deal with the 1 ton gorilla that is pretty much of his own creation as many of the national sites that picked up Coryell's story are also helping with his fund raising efforts on behalf of Latourette's 2008 challenger, Bill O'Neill.

How would a situation like that translate to the KELO project? I touched on that a few days ago when the story first hit.
I admit that Ohio and South Dakota are 2 completely different animals but this situation brings up a few questions. How would things shake out if a similar situation happened here? What if a local candidate like say Stephanie Herseth Sandlin for instance took umbrage with something one of us wrote either on our own or our KELO blog and made that displeasure known to the powers that be in the news department at the state’s most watched TV news outlet, how would they react? Of course we couldn’t be fired like the blogger in question as we aren’t actually employed by KELO but would they censor the post if it appeared on their site? Would they disassociate themselves with the person in question? Personally I don’t think they would as long as it wasn’t something totally over the top but who knows for sure?

Upon further reflection, I think the big difference between the Plain Dealer situation and here that I hadn't considered initially and is something that I think is being overlooked in many accounts of this story nationally is probably the main reason that project was doomed to fail from the start. The bloggers for the Plain Dealer were being paid by the paper to blog for them. Even though when hired they were told they would be uncensored, the fact that they were compensated opened up the paper to claims by individuals like LaTourette that the paper supported the views of those writing for them. Many mainstream media outlets have rules in place that prevent their political reporters from participating in or donating to political campaigns, and the fact that Coryell had donated to LaTourette's challenger and was now being paid by the PD opened up the paper to LaTourette's pressure tactics. KELO, by not paying their political bloggers, can bypass the type heat brought forward by LaTourette though that's not to say they won't get pressured because of the free exposure they provide.

The 2008 election cycle is fast approaching and you can bet some of us will be critical of those running for office either here or on our own sites which could lead to some of the same heat that was felt in Cleveland. Politics is a dirty business and to this point I have to give credit to KELO for what they are doing and for being pretty much hands off with the content we have provided. Hopefully at this time next year I can say the same thing, stay tuned...

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