There’s another brouhaha – first reported / started by Valleywag – unfolding on Techmeme over the involvement of some Federated Media A-listers – including Om, Paul, Mike, Fred – in a Microsoft “people ready” ad campaign. The gory details are sprayed all over the ‘sphere this morning (why does this always happen on a Saturday???) so I’ll leave them to that. For my part, after a bit of reflection I’m wondering what the big deal is with Paul and Fred. (Fred has said as much, though Paul seems to regret doing it. They’re both VCs, of course, and so there’s that, but still …) With Om and Mike, I think it’s a bigger deal. Interestingly, Om has fallen on his sword, and Mike has gone Commando on Nick.
Essentially, some bloggers who are celebrities in their own right are being presented in an ad campaign as being “people ready”. Nick Denton says the bloggers are journalists making an improper endorsement (“But there are limits to journalistic endorsements, and Federated Media just crossed them.”). I didn’t realize Paul and Fred were “journalists”, and they’ll be surprised to hear that too, but let’s not be flip – Nick’s larger point is presumably that as guys who have an audience they must be unbiased and must be seen to be unbiased.
First, I don’t think that’s true about Paul and Fred. They’re two guys with blogs. They have opinions, even though they’re often wrong, as Fred was about that whole YouTube / Google thing (but that’s a conversation for another day and no way would I still be annoyed about that not me why would I?) (grin), but they’re opinions, backed by an entire constellation of personal motivations, and their reputations for being right or wrong or biased or unbiased are their own to manage as they see fit. (Update: This point should have been obvious to the ‘tropolis, and – tellingly – wasn’t, but perhaps with Fred’s post on this point specifically, will be.) If they want to get involved in celebrity endorsements it’s their business, and as long as an ad is discernable as an ad – a point that Mike makes in his response to Nick – I don’t see a problem. And frankly, even if an ad were not discernable as an ad, it’s still their business, though I’m sure it’s at least as obvious to them as it is to anyone else that getting caught shilling for someone without disclosing the interest is a pretty fast way to obliterate your credibility. Just ask Dick Cheney about Haliburton. Ok, not so funny, but you get the point.
Much of that applies to Om and Mike, too, but it seems to me that if you’re presenting yourself as an unbiased source of factual information – whatever you call yourself – the reader’s expectations of knowing of anything that might impair your objectivity are ratcheted up to some extent. If you want to be the Wall Street Journal – OK, not the editorial page, they left Planet Earth a long time ago, but the business reporters, for example – your standards for this obviously have to be very different than The Register’s (no offense guys, but personally I think you left on the same spaceship). Where exactly Om and Mike want to be on that spectrum is up to them (just the same way that where Jon Stewart wants to be on the news – comedy scale is up to him) – it’s a business model / branding decision. But once they decide, whether they stay there in our estimation is up to us.
Mike says the statements attributed to him were an ad and it’s obvious that they were an ad. He also says it wasn’t a “direct” endorsement, and that he didn’t really take the content seriously (“In the case of the Microsoft ad, we were quoted how we had become “people ready,” whatever that means”), that it was dull and uncontroversial (“I think it will be hard to find this text controversial, or anything other then extremely boring”), and more generally that it happens all the time and wasn’t really his idea (“We do these all the time…generally FM suggests some language and we approve or tweak it to make it less lame. The ads go up, we get paid. This has been going on for months and months – at least since the summer of 2006. It’s nothing new. It’s text in an ad box. I think people are pretty aware of what that means…which is nothing”). All of that may be relevant I suppose, but I think the essence of the issue is whether there’s a difference – for purposes of the reader’s trust – between running an ad on your site and giving a commercial endorsement.
Instinctively, I think the answer is yes – though as Mike notes there may be circumstances that mitigate that difference, at least in the eye of the money beholder – but I’m having a hard time saying exactly why. Nick says “The stodgy old media industry has a rule that newspaper reporters, and TV news hosts, shouldn’t trade on their public trust to endorse products” (right under a banner ad for the xbox 360). But he doesn’t really say where the “limit” is, though he says there is one: “It’s become redundant: the reading public typically wants journalists to drop the pretense of objectivity, and wear their prejudices in public. (For the record, my current passions are the iPhone and Facebook.) But there are limits to journalistic endorsements, and Federated Media just crossed them.” Oh wait – “One would have thought that tech opinion-leaders as influential as Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky would ration their credibility more carefully, and reserve it for companies and products for which they felt real enthusiasm” – “real enthusiasm” – is that the “limit”? I’m not sure. And so I’ll leave this post unfinished for the time being, and maybe it’ll come to me over my eggs.
Update: Dave Winer on the issue of the difference: “Next month when we read something positive on these sites about Microsoft, how are we supposed to know if it’s an opinion, or just another example of being paid to say something supportive of Microsoft.” That’s the easy answer, but not really satisfying. We routinely see bloggers, especially A-list business bloggers, pull their punches and do their best to avoid giving offense or criticize others. The examples are legion. How do we really know that they think? The same way we know what they think about anything – we read the tea leaves and decode meaning as required. Dave himself notes – to put words in his mouth – that this is a ‘death from a thousand cuts’ situation. The issue is about context, clearly. It seems to me that for the same reason a business blogger is not intending to be the WSJ’s business section, the analysis of bias for a business blogger is different as well, and Fred’s comments about the difference between ‘old school’ and the new new school are apt.
Updater: I just realized that Paul’s response to the Valleywag piece has comments turned off. I can well understand the desire to not spend time in the thrash, especially on a Saturday morning, but it struck me as an interesting reaction to a conversation over an ad campaign itself described as a conversation (a characterization that Mathew and Tony consider in some detail), and is quite a different approach than Fred is taking.
Updatest: Ethan’s hearing voices.
Updaterest: I don’t think I’m going to blog about this anymore. Frankly, the tedium, self-promotion and sanctimony of much of the commentary has exhausted my interest in the topic (even though Nick is doing his darndest to keep the train rolling). And I now see the wisdom of Paul’s decision to turn off comments.