By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Talking back in real time

I’m a huge admirer of Paul Levy, president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess, but I can’t pretend I’m in a position to judge the merits of his objections to Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to cap medical costs. (Although I do think Levy makes some good points.)

My main reason for posting this is to call attention to the ongoing media revolution made possible by the Internet. Old story though it may be, I think this is an unusually relevant example, and we shouldn’t take for granted the power to talk back:

  • The Boston Globe reports on Patrick’s proposal. For whatever reason, none of the reporters chose to quote Levy.
  • Levy writes what is essentially an op-ed piece in almost-real time, without having to wait for days and be subject to the Globe’s editing process.
  • Levy also links to another account that he believes got it right: an editorial in the Boston Herald.

As for influence, Levy’s blog, Running a Hospital, gets about 10,000 unique visitors a month, according to Obviously the Globe’s circulation is much larger. But how often do you read guest op-eds? Yeah, me too. Levy may well attract as many if not more readers by posting on his blog than if his piece had run in the Globe.

One thing I’ll point out, and, frankly, Levy should have: he is supporting Patrick’s main rival in the gubernatorial contest, Republican Charlie Baker, former head of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Levy no doubt thinks that fact is well-known, especially among the specialized audience that reads his blog. But disclosure never hurts, and it often helps.

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  1. L.K. Collins

    I don’t agree that Levy should have indicated his political preference in the Governors race.

    The statement has been made on his personal blog.

    His requirement for disclosure is no more or less than yours, Dan, here on Media Nation.

    The ideas that he conveys that are the important parts, not his political stand. Why is it necessary to politicize his thoughts? Levy has already established his context as you clearly note.

    The internet, I agree, has allowed individuals to post opinions in quick sequence to the postings of others, and that is a two-edged sword.

    Prompt response can be to advantage, but it can lead poorly considered positions.

    One who knows his subject well and can articulate comfortably under time constraint, like Levy appears to be, can often move the conversation forward or counter an incorrect argument before things are complicated by the extraneous.

  2. Well, Dan is trying to classify blogs as a very real real journalistic outlet. As such, any biases by the writer need to be made known.

    Whether Levy agrees with that is up to debate.

  3. L.K. Collins

    I disagree, Mike.

    Blogs are personal outlets that have public faces. (Cheers for the power of the internet!)

    That some blogs have journalistic merit is either by design by the author or by accident, but it doesn’t change the underlying premise that they are decidedly personal.

  4. Dan,

    I thought about adding that point, but then I would need to do so any time I wrote about virtually any topic regarding the state government (health care, infrastructure, etc.). I don’t write my blog with an eye to support or oppose candidates. I just write about the issues as I see them.

    In this case, too, I don’t even know if Charlie disagrees with what I am saying. I suspect not, but I may actually be contradicting things he is saying, too.

    By the way, I have also praised the Governor, e.g., with regard to seeking health care for legal immigrants. Here’s an example: Should I also indicate my support for Charlie when I say something nice about the Governor? That would seem kind of awkward and silly.

    In any event, I view myself as a private citizen and not a journalist when I write on my blog. As you note, the same disclosure rules do not apply in this forum. But maybe you are right, in that the lines between journalism, op-ed, and blogs have blurred sufficiently that disclosure would be helpful. Thank you: Let me think further about how to do that next time.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Paul: If you had written that piece for the Globe op-ed page, I would want to see a disclosure that you were a Baker supporter. Certainly it’s nothing you’ve been trying to hide. You’re right, though, that there are many topics you write about that might call for a disclosure under my standard. So maybe it just makes sense to give readers credit for knowing who you are.

      On an entirely unrelated note, how did do in estimating your monthly unique visitors?

  5. As best I can tell, Dan, it is likely the right order of magnitude. It is a little hard to know, in that there are click-to visitors, people who get an RSS feed, Feedburner email subscribers, note readers on Facebook, Bloglines subscribers, and who knows what else. I do know, though, that the readership is very high quality and engaged in health care issues, literally around the world. I remain surprised by all of this. I never would have imagined at the start that the readership would have grown to this extent.

    Speaking of disclosure, though, wouldn’t it be right for Globe and Herald editorial and op-ed writers to disclose whom they support for elective office?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Paul: You’re in my wheelhouse now! I would argue that journalists, including opinion journalists, should not “support” anyone for office. Our job is to do journalism from a point of view. But if we publicly announce for whom we’re going to vote, put campaign signs on our lawns or — especially — give money, then we are abusing our platform. It may seem like a fine distinction, but I think it’s important to distinguish between supporting a candidate’s positions and supporting a candidate.

  6. L.K. Collins

    Hmmm…. a distinction without a difference?

    Why maintain a fiction when it is so easily discernible? For the appearance of being unbiased?

    Much more credible for the journalist to admit his bias, than to sneak it in under the guise of objectivity.

    For the opinion commentator, a much different calculus if the article is billed as such.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @L.K.: No. Properly understood, it’s not a fiction at all. For an opinion journalist to write “I’m voting for Joan Smith” is to change reality. If I favor Smith’s positions on important issues, I will feel free to write that. Most readers would understand that I’m probably going to vote for Smith. But if I cross the line from supporting Smith’s positions to supporting Smith, now I have a stake in her success. And if I become troubled by some of the things she’s doing, I’m going to be more inclined to make excuses for her and less inclined to criticize her.

  7. L.K. Collins

    And you don’t have a stake when you don’t admit the bias?

    I’m sense that “properly understood” has more to do with how you view reality than it does the readers’. Announcing the preference has no bearing on the reality; it merely acknowledges it.

    And if you are troubled by what is being said and you decline to comment, whether or not you have overtly statited your preference, aren’t you moving away from an honest presentation of views?

    No. I much prefer the bias open and on the table. If you, or for that matter I, am critiqued on the biases, then isn’t that a healthy part of discourse?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @L.K.: The bias is for ideas, principles, issues, and is clearly stated up front — the bias is not for individual candidates. I quite literally do not consider myself a “supporter” of the people for whom I vote. Any news organization worth its salt bans even its opinion journalists from donating to candidates or engaging in other over forms of political activity. That is as it should be.

  8. Dan,

    More here: I’m happy to get more thoughts on this disclosure topic.

    BTW, the main point of your post is right on target. The world has changed.

  9. Paul is an opinion leader. His support of Newton mayoral contender Setti Warren was like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and helped deliver Setti to the Mayor’s office. Paul has credibility in a variety of areas and has given transparency a new name in the field of health care. If he’s being critical of the Governor, disclosing his financial support of Charlie Baker tells us 1)to look at the reasons he is supporting Charlie and 2)to weigh the intensity and rationale for his criticism of the Governor. Paul may not be paid for doing journalism, but, in this day of citizen journalism, that’s exactly his function. Tell us if you have a horse in the race, and we’ll decide how to sort out the field.

  10. Where do we draw the line on this?

    Ms. Arons-Barron is a donor to Deval Patrick*. Is she under an obligation to disclose this every time she posts something on the gubernatorial race? Or every time she comments on a blog about an issue even tangentially related to the race?

    I lean towards ‘no’ in general. If you are on a candidate’s staff or campaign committee, yes, but demanding disclosure of every donation seems like a pretty high standard.

    *how do I know this? Use to find donation info for your favorite blogger. Its not a very friendly interface — download larger records and import them into excel in order to really analyze.

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