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

Paul Levy and a blogger’s obligations

Paul Levy has written a characteristically thoughtful response to my suggestion that he should have disclosed his support for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker when he criticized Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to control rising health-care costs. We also discussed it in the comments.

Levy offers a spectrum, and I’d answer it this way: If someone is writing a public blog offering commentary on political issues, then yes, he should disclose if he has publicly endorsed or donated money to a candidate. But no, there’s no need to disclose your private voting intentions, even if you have told friends. The former makes you a supporter; the latter merely makes you a likely voter.

Levy is not a journalist, but he’s doing journalism of a sort. Thus, not all of the ethical rules that journalists have to follow apply to him (it would be anathema even for an opinion journalist to give money to a candidate, for instance). But for someone in his position, it’s better to disclose.

Final point: Of course, Levy had already disclosed his support for Baker. It’s not a matter of being open; he is. It’s a matter of informing those who might not be aware of his political activities.

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  1. Michael Pahre

    Dan, I’m basically on your side on this. Levy is doing something that is a mixture of journalism and corporate advocacy on the part of his employer. (What ratio is left to the reader to decide.) I understand that Levy considers himself writing as a “private citizen” on his blog, but any regular reader sees that it really is mostly about his corporate activities, not his personal activities or personal reflections at home after a hard day’s work.

    Political finance contributions ought to be part of doing the journalism side, while non-disclosure is, sadly, the usual path taken by those who write advocacy pieces on the corporate side.

    Remember that personal campaign contributions are what is required in this state, since corporations cannot donate to elections (yet). The way that corporations (and lobbying firms on behalf of their clients) influence the electoral process in Mass is through personal contributions of their employees (and the lobbyists themselves). Many journalists — including at the Globe — regularly group personal contributions from employees at a company to show that company’s influence, even if all those employees are, supposedly, acting privately and independently. So Levy’s personal contributions are publicly viewed as connected to his corporate activity, and vice-versa, regardless of whether or not that perception is fair or accurate.

    One additional disclosure that I haven’t seen mentioned: Charlie Baker was named to the Beth Israel Board of Directors in late 2007, although I don’t believe that he is still on it. I am not sure of the exact governance structure at BIDMC, but most boards have hire/fire/evaluation/salary authority over the chief executive. Even if Baker is no longer a director, he was in the position recently: that is something that really ought to be disclosed when writing about issues related to Baker’s political ambitions.

    Whether or not Levy’s blog post was about Baker’s political ambitions is another point altogether…

  2. BP Myers

    Hard to call Levy a “private citizen” in any capacity when he works in an industry that the government compels people to contribute to and participate in.

  3. Charlie was, but no longer is, a member of the Board of Trustees. He resigned when he announced his campaign for Governor. In any event, that is an advisory board that does not have hire/fire/evaluation/salary authority over the chief executive. That fiduciary responsibility resides in the Board of Directors.

    But, I think you are getting far afield when you suggest that not only should disclose my support for Charlie but also mention that he was formerly a volunteer donating his time to our hospital. My original post was about a policy issue facing the entire state. When I was writing it, I didn’t even know if Charlie would agree with what I was saying. Let’s be practical here.

    But now, Michael, since you are now writing in a public forum on this topic, don’t you, too, have an obligation to disclose whether you are supporting a candidate in this race. Doesn’t everyone who comments on my blog on a topic like this? Or does that obligation only reside with the blogger? I’m not sure I would see a difference. You have now taken advantage of Dan’s broad circulation to make a point on the topic. Others take advantage of my readership in the same way. You and they, too, have now become electronic op-ed writers.

  4. Michael Pahre

    Paul, thanks for the clarification as to the details of the advisory board on which Baker previously sat. It is obviously a fuzzier question as to disclosure by a blogger when a candidate for public office recently sat on his/her advisory board in an unpaid role. I guess I might still lean towards noting it, but differing views are quite understandable.

    Sure, let’s get disclosure out of the way. I’m happy to declare mine: none.

    When I started up my Brighton Centered Blog in 2007, I knew that I would be writing about issues either directly or indirectly related to politics. I consciously chose to make no financial contributions to any candidates, participate in no campaigns, and continue in my voter registration as unenrolled.

    Personally, I just can’t imagine writing about politics, or issues that are forefront of the political campaigns of the day, and be taken seriously if I were playing a partisan role in any election. But that’s just my personal opinion about my own personal situation.

    Finally, I believe that you have falsely equated commenters with bloggers. Dan writes his posts here trying to stick to standards and practices of journalism, which makes his writing role a fair equivalent to that of either a news reporter or an op-ed columnist (depending on the topic).

    Commenters on his blog, however, are under no such constraints (outside of avoiding defamation and hopefully being polite). Comments here are basically unmoderated (in a practical sense) — unlike letters-to-the-editor at the newspaper, which are carefully selected, edited, shortened, and hence subject to disclosure.

    This comment I just wrote is no op-ed piece. I would be laughed out of town if I were to assert any such thing.

  5. Michael’s choice to absent himself from a civic role of supporting candidates while taking on another civic role of writing about politics is, I would guess, unusual. I’m guessing it does not include voting in elections (or, maybe, talking with friends about his preferences). So although he does not give money to candidates, he certainly has underlying opinions.

    Dan has suggested that it is the act of giving money that distinguishes the responsibility of a blogger to disclose to his or her readers when he or she writes about something that could be construed as opposing or supporting a candidate in that race.

    Michael says that a comment on a blog does not carry with it the same disclosure standards as the original post.

    Sorry, but having now considered a slew of comments on my blog, I see these all as distinctions without a difference.

    I don’t believe my civic rights and responsibilities with regard to candidate support — financial or otherwise — impose any particular responsibility on me to disclose such on my blog. When it comes to financial support, any person who is concerned about such can quickly search the state financial contributions database to check donations. We have decided that this level of disclosure is sufficient for all other public policy purposes, including even doing business with the state, and I don’t see a need for an individual blogger or commenter to offer more to the public.

    I don’t see any conflict of interest argument here, in that there is no financial gain that accrues to my opinion. Nor can one argue that my hospital is likely to gain or lose by my underlying political support, as opposed to the opinion I offer on the blog. Said opinion, by the way, is inherently as public as could possibly be imagined and is subject to posted comments pro and con. This is about as democratic and free a method of discussing the issues of the day as could be imagined.

    Finally, as also noted in comments on my blog, inclusion of political campaign thoughts in the midst of the actual topic being discussed is likely to divert discussion from the merits of that topic to the merits of the candidate. Other readers will find that annoying and off the point, and it will erode the value of the blog for those interested in its main topic.

    In any event, there now has certainly been enough disclosure of my support for Charlie Baker on my blog. So ironically, the issue is now concluded along the lines Dan would have wanted! So let me take this opportunity to urge people to support Charlie and vote for him.

  6. Actually, let me refine that last point, which I hope people understand was made in humor. I just hope people will be engaged in this election and vote. We are very lucky to have two thoughtful and well-intentioned people running.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Paul: Here’s my headline: Levy Throws Cahill, Mihos, Stein and Ross Under the Bus. 😉

  7. L.K. Collins

    Inasmuch as the Massachusetts “journalist” community has already thrown Mihos, Stein and Ross under the bus, Mr. Levy is likely only admitting the reality.

    …But is throwing Galvin under the bus really news?

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