Monday, December 1, 2008

Awards Season (or, Wherein I Lob Tony Palmeri a Softball)

Tony's up with this year's edition of the Tony Awards, which means that the first few Media Rants columns of the coming year will be devoted to the Most Censored Stories of the Year, per tradition. These tend to be stories that hit a little closer to home wherein the local media either dropped the ball or are somehow complicit in some misdeed or another.

Allow me to volunteer a suggestion...

Journal Communications, Wisconsin's largest media firm and the dudes that own the Journal Sentinel and WTMJ et al., run a series of websites that cater to their suburban readers in Milwaukee's collar communities. These sites generally fall under the brand of and are orientated to their particular markets with such spin-offs as and and and so forth. It's all local news directed at readers of each individual community and as a consequence is incredibly boring to anyone who does not live there (and probably not all that much exciting to those who actually live there as well, hence the need to liven things up a bit).

Each community has their own stable of local bloggers who vary according to opinion, subject matter and talent, but when a reader goes to he or she notices something odd: two of the four local bloggers are employed by the same state senator's office. One is State Senator Mary Lazich, the other is one of her legislative aides.

We here recently noted that this arrangement can lead to some confusion.

What we decided not to mention at the time -- and may as well bring up now -- is what the fuck?

Is this ethical by any responsible journalists standards?

Here's the rub:

Media outlets -- especially local ones -- are supposed to scrutinize local elected officials, not offer them platforms to project their agendas. If the NW, for example, gave a city council member -- any city council member -- a weekly column to use however he or she wanted there would be a chorus of heads exploding and hands grabbing pitchforks and torches across town.

That's basically what has decided to do: give a local elected official a venue to spout off whatever's on her mind (her blog, like most blogs on the site, is clearly not subject to any editorial control). By relying on Lazich for content -- and more importantly it's parent company Journal Communications -- JC is essentially giving her a pass by tying their lots together. How are we to expect JC to properly scrutinize someone who is ostensibly working for them? Would it not be rather embarrassing for JC, and essentially demonstrate poor judgment at best and complicitness at worse, if Lazich were discovered to be doing something improper?

Secondly, by providing Lazich with a her own blog JC is giving the state senator something of value. She may not be receiving any monetary compensation for her blogging, but she is getting some real estate under a local brand name and that's not exactly something to pooh-pooh. She's essentially being given a free permanent online advertisement. Last election cycle local blogger Jo Egelhoff thought it appropriate to sign-off on her own blog while she ran for office. Even though some locally saw more of a political motive in doing so, the DOJ didn't call the move absolutely without warrant -- and this was Egelhoff's own baby we're talking about here. Lazich's arrangement is far more questionable. Furthermore, Lazich is being given something of value here by a corporation and those contributions are illegal under state election law.

This is, admittedly, uncharted territory when it comes to the intersection of election law, technology and communications ethics -- but it certainly begs that such questions be resolved quickly.

Compounding this matter is the fact that one of her staffers also has a blog on the same site, doubly the impact of the Lazich's office to communicate with her constituents.

Let's get something straight here before we go any further: I'm not suggesting that Lazich or her receptionist should stop blogging or be silenced in any way. There are easy and cost-effective ways of blogging (i.e. Blogger) that can achieve the same ends (Lazich can even use her own official state senate web site for blogging -- so long as it's not used for campaigning). What I am suggesting is that because she and her staffer are doing so on the webpages of what is ostensibly an objective traditional media outlet that the sponsor becomes suspect because it appears to facilitate the opinions and agenda of a local elected official.

That's what official state media outlets do in countries with less than free presses.

At best this arrangement is ethically suspect and at worse it's illegal -- though I don't think there is anyone anywhere yet who can speak authoritatively about the legality of the arrangement because the courts and/or election boards simply have not had to deal with an issue like this before.

So what I'm suggesting is that media critics like Tony muse on this matter a little more and do what they can to bring it out into the public. I'd personally like to see someone like Dan Bice investigate this matter more closely, but since he works for another arm of Journal Communications, I'm not holding my breath. What I'd really like to see is someone like illusory tenant (and/or some of his friends at the bar) do some constitutional beta-testing through the proper legal channels.

Maybe I'm completely wrong here and this is not a big deal at all, but something instinctively seems pretty sketchy here and the best way to determine the way to go in the future is to start airing this issue out in public.

Have at it, Cheddarsphere.


capper said...

Not only all that, but Fischer blogs under Lazich's name as well.

All while on the taxpayer dollar.

illusory tenant said...

Many thanks for the plug but any prospective work product would necessarily require actually reading those blogs. So at this time I'll respectfully decline and leave it to capper, who has a far higher tolerance for those sorts of things. Cheers, and welcome back.

Jb said...

You know, IL, you're right -- this is a job for professionals ... I wonder what the Wisconsin Democracy project is doing these days? Surely they've got some down time after the election. This is a bona fide campaign finance issue, something that's right up their ally.