Buzz from the Alternate Blogosphere

by Kieran Healy on November 20, 2003

Left-wing bloggers were put on the defensive today as a report in The Weekly Standard revealed that The Finland Station, a left-leaning website known for its political commentary and analysis, is in fact a wholly-owned subsidiary of DCI Group, a political consultancy paid to run “Astroturf” campaigns for the likes of the Sierra Club, the ACLU, the SEIU and Howard Dean. Articles from prominent left-wing bloggers such as Atrios, Chris Bertram, and Josh Marshall have been featured on TFS in the past. The Weekly Standard demonstrated that TFS often chose its issue areas based on the consulting deals its owners had made with various clients, timed articles to coincide with astroturf campaigns, and ran pieces by representatives of its clients alongside articles by freelance commentators—including well-known left-wing bloggers. For example, in conjunction with a campaign paid for by the Free Software Foundation, TFS printed a column promoting free software as the New Socialism. Such columns were then picked up and cross-promoted by the foundation without mentioning the flow of money between the parties.

Embarrassed lefty bloggers have angrily defended themselves. “I was never leaned on to present a particular view,” said Chris Bertram. “Besides,” he went on, “it’s the calibre of the bridge pilings that matters, not the source of the money. Just ask Spiro Agnew. I mean ideas. Calibre of the ideas.” Other commentators felt the same. “First of all,” said Henry Farrell, “No-one on this earth tells me what to think or write. And if you read my stuff I think you’ll find it’s hard to argue with that,” he continued. Meanwhile Atrios said he had “no time for silly conspiracy theories, unless they are about ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. I’m definitely open to those.”

Predictably, commentary from the right side of the blogosphere has been harsh. “The article never suggested that the bloggers were being leaned on, bribed or otherwise corrupted” said Megan McArdle. “In fact it went out of its way to say otherwise. It’s more that the bloggers were just convenient bits of ideological scenery. By putting forward their ideas sincerely, they allowed TFS to slip in its pro-union, anti-freedom astroturf by-the-by. So they contributed to an agenda that was often already bought and paid for. Ayn Rand would have been appalled by such weakness.” Glenn Reynolds agreed. “This is just typical left-wing misdirection,” he said. “These commentators were effectively part of a lobbying outfit. You might even say they were objectively pro-Howard. All their whining now won’t change that.” Pejman Yousefzadeh was even harsher in his critique. “It’s a disgrace,” he shouted. “The problem with TFS’s operation is so obvious even a 15-year-old Model UN delegate from the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros Islands would see it immediately. It’s got nothing to do with secret meetings or money under the table or undue pressure—typical left-wing tactics, I might add—and everything to do with inadvertently lending your own hard-won credibility as an independent thinker and commentator to an operation whose main purpose turns out to be to publicize policy positions paid for by your boss’s clients. But I wouldn’t expect any of those lefties to wonder whether their integrity had been hijacked by profiteering political mercenaries—integrity is a conservative virtue, after all.”

{ 34 comments }

1

Bryant 11.20.03 at 12:36 pm

Heh, as they say.

The problem really isn’t very complicated. DCI is a public relations company. That is the main and primary focus of their efforts. They lobby people for a living.

They are not, in any way, a media company.

This leaves us with one simple question. Why would a lobbying company publish (not sponsor, but publish) a news and opinion website?

2

Arnold Kling 11.20.03 at 12:53 pm

I actually practice what I preach, which is to take people’s editorial positions at face value. If someone “exposed” crookertimber.org as being financed by a PR group, I would still try to evaluate your writing on its merits.

Let met make an emotional comment here. Recently, I received an indirect inquiry from my former thesis adviser, Robert Solow, as to my whereabouts. I wrote to him, and he responded. He concluded by saying “I always thought you sold yourself short. You should have been teaching at one of the elite colleges.”

Self-promotion was never my strong suit. I think that if the world were fair and essays were judged on content, mine would get a wider reading. What little audience I have I owe to TCS, and I am grateful.

If you have a substantive criticism of my writing, I would be eager to receive it.

3

bryan 11.20.03 at 1:13 pm

I have a hard time getting indignant over this particular subject because I think it only makes concrete what has been a tendency in commentary over the past two decades (in the manner of American genius by incorporating what is a tendency into a business plan).

Kling and others are deriving monetary benefits for their viewpoints from a corporation that seeks out people of that viewpoint who are adept at articulating it. By doing so they might make more likely that others, with a gift for articulation of whatever viewpoint should suit the moment, will be hired to do so but it seems likely to me that there will always be more people who actually believe a viewpoint and can articulate it then people who can articulate whatever will suit.

The problem is not limited to TCS but is endemic to American-like mass media opinion culture, that a thinker by being positively rewarded for their opinions is likely to generate similar opinions in search of still further reward, it is the rare thinker that could in the light of such positive input change their opinions in the light of any negative input such as possible non-agreement of reality with their opinions. Thus a system that makes thought a consumer item, in easily digestible categories such as Conservative Libertarian leaning etc. etc. hampers the free intellectual development of the thinker. But, as I’m sure a TCS drone would be willing to remind us, that is the efficiency of the market at work.

4

Tom T. 11.20.03 at 1:13 pm

All political publishing is lobbying to some extent. People publish and write for such magazines in the hope that their writings will influence public policy. Mother Jones and the National Review each have links to lobbying campaigns on their main web pages.

In my view, Kieran’s parody simply emphasizes that, as scandals go, this one seems rather trivial.

5

Bryant 11.20.03 at 1:19 pm

Yes, yes. Now:

Why would a lobbying company publish a news and opinion website?

Bonus question:

Why wouldn’t they want you to know they publish it?

6

Lisa Williams 11.20.03 at 2:21 pm

My question is, what does this mean for the readers and the writers at TCS? One possible scenario is that TCS, unlike conventional media, doesn’t make money exclusively from advertising but instead has a roster of clients of DCI who would like certain views and agendas to be talked about, and then DCI “shops” for someone who conveniently holds those views.

If it’s happening, that’s wrong. But why is it wrong? Well, it’s wrong for two reasons: one, in conventional advertising-supported media, the ad for gin or gasoline or a new pharmaceutical is clearly shown to the reader AS AN ADVERTISMENT. If in fact DCI is getting paid to find authors to promote certain views in advance, then those stories are themselves paid advertisements and should be labeled as such. Secondly, if in fact those authors weren’t aware that DCI was being paid up front to put out stories with a certain preselected point of view, it’s terribly manipulative and abusive of that author’s dignity, who is in essence being made to sell a product and star in a commercial without being told about it. Presumably if that author wanted to write press releases for a political action group, industry lobbying group, or think tank for a living, they would apply for those jobs themselves. Not to mention the fact that such jobs would pay quite a bit more than what freelance authors are likely paid for writing articles for a website.

Such “prepaid journalism” can’t be confused with what’s normally referred to as “editorial bias.” Sure, Fox and the NYT have editorial “slants.” But as far as we know, neither one is taking money up front from a lobbying group and *then* writing stories tailored to that point of view. If they did, it would rightfully be a Big Scandal. Instead, they take a certain editorial view and take their chances in the free market that that view will be palatable to a big enough audience that advertisers will want to come along for the ride and show their products alongside the news content. In this way, when the money comes and how it comes does make a real difference.

7

Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 2:30 pm

Just so, Lisa. It’s very sad to see Kling and others shoot the messenger when, really, they should direct their ire at the people that took them for fools: DCI.

It certainly doesn’t make me think well of them, their intellectual integrity, or their courage.

8

Arnold Kling 11.20.03 at 2:50 pm

Ok, so you don’t want me to publish on TCS. My problem is that I’d like to have my articles read. I don’t care whether I get paid. I was writing my essays and posting them on my web site for free before TCS came along. And they’re good essays, dammit!

The entire Confessore piece was all about “shooting the messenger,” as is this entire blog thread. Sheesh.

Would one of you actually like to *read* one of my essays and discuss the substance? Is there a substance-focused liberal in the house?

9

Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 3:06 pm

Is there a substance-focused liberal in the house?

Yes. Quite a few. We’re here discussing the substantive claim that TCS’s trojan horse tactics are an affront to civil discourse.

What are you talking about?

Oh. You think that the claim is being made that your writing, and ideas, are somehow invalid because of their TCS association. But I’ve not said that. They are tarnished by association, but that’s not your fault.

How would you feel about being asked to write for a magazine that is secretely financed by Scientology, where the writers and articles are chosen on the basis of furthering Scientology aims…but you, the writer, aren’t told that, and neither is the reader? Does that strike you as a good thing? Something you’d want to be associated with? Something you’d write apologetics for later? Frankly, it’s all the worse that, in this hypothetical example, an auther wouldn’t have known they were asked to write an article critical of psychiatry because Scientology aims to discredit psychiatry. He/she would have written the article in good faith. But the magazine wouldn’t have solicited or selected the article, nor presented to the reader in good faith. And that would be a serious concern, for both the writer and the reader.

10

Jack 11.20.03 at 3:33 pm

Part of the problem is that it is certainly an issue but it is not a fatal issue. Yes it’s quite focussed in its outlook but, hey, I read blogs.
Arnold’s articles I believe are exactly what they would ever have been as I guess are those of Megan McArdle, Matthew Yglessias. If htey weren’t sufficiently engaging then TCS wouldn’t serve more purpose than PR Newswire.

Unfortunately some articles from unknown sources and editorial agenda setting must now be interpreted rather more carefully. Maybe authors should be sure that their articles are not being shown in the wrong context.

It’s not something anyone should be jailed for but I am glad of the health warning.

11

Jonathan Dursi 11.20.03 at 3:43 pm


If you have a substantive criticism of my writing, I would be eager to receive it.

King:

An enterprise can be corrupt without every person who contributes to the enterprise being corrupt.

I don’t have any trouble believing that there are people whose views and cogent arguments happen to coincide with TCSs dishonestly portrayed, paid-for, editorial position. In that situation, TCS would doubtless be happy to post the honest, well-reasoned article. Not everyone at TCS is Megan McArdle.
Matthew Yglesias, whose writing I think very highly of, has been published in TCS.

On the other hand, now that its public knowledge that TCS is bought and paid for for explicitly ulterior motives, continuing to contribute to TCS means knowingly continuing to this bluntly dishonest `journalistic’ practice. If you’re ok with that, then, well, its a free world, and nothing illegal as far as I can see is happening.

If you’re willing to support the TCS charade by continuing to be a contributing editor, no one can stop you. If you make the consious choice that getting people to read your material is worth the means, that’s your call. But the dishonesty of the overall publication will reflect poorly on your work, even if your work doesn’t deserve it. Imagine being a perfectly honest, scrupulous departmental-level accountant in Enron.

You certainly have a dillema if TCS is the only place you can get your material published. But if TCS is the only place which would publish your material, that would raise another question.

12

Richard Vagge 11.20.03 at 5:32 pm

There was an interesting experiment done in which auditions for an orchestra was held, but the judges were not allowed to see who was performing. It turned out that many more African Americans and women were chosen.

I would like to suggest to the people at Crooked Timber that you might want to try this some time. Forget about who pays, or what business the person who pays is in and just look at the ideas.

Is this so hard?

13

Arnold Kling 11.20.03 at 5:36 pm

“But if TCS is the only place which would publish your material, that would raise another question.”

I would love it if the NYT would open up its column to a contest to be decided by the alumni of top economics departments. Given the number of MIT alumni who think that Krugman’s columns are daft, I don’t think my competition would come from that corner (not that I wouldn’t face stiff competition from elsewhere).

I don’t think that the actual NYT process for choosing a columnist was fair or effective–there were no auditions, as far as I know. But I can still read every column and evaluate it on its merits. You can do the same with my columns on TCS.

I’m still waiting for someone to read a column and discuss it, rather than just take cheap shots at my character.

14

brayden 11.20.03 at 5:54 pm

Nice job Kieran. Very fair and balanced, as far as blogs go.

15

Barry 11.20.03 at 5:56 pm

Arnold, please name those alumni.

This is just like the argument that ‘many economists have lost respect for Krugman’ (by Sullivan, IIRC, although Megan McArdle has probably made a similar claim).

As for posting columns by the alumni of top econ departments: last I heard, Professor Krugman had won tenure at three of the top ten.

Pretty d*mn good, IMHO.

And we’re still waiting for you to discuss the actual issue raide in the article about TCS.

16

markus 11.20.03 at 6:18 pm

It just occurred to me, there is a another reason why TCS writers wouldn’t want to reconsider their engagement. If TCS is a lobbying front, that means their articles were perhaps not selected on their merits, but because they agreed with some lobbying purpose. Which in turn might simply mean that they’re not as good writers as they thought. (Remember, the market tells you how good you are in their view. Finding that they’re -possibly- merely good enough to provide some cover for lobbying might hurt.)
Could Mr. Kling please spend some time navel-gazing, whether this and the desire to defend his integrity (which AFAIK no-one questioned) have anything to do with the refusal to question TCS and the focus on the messenger?

17

Brian Weatherson 11.20.03 at 6:33 pm

I love it when the Krugman-bashing starts. It’s always a sign the righties are getting desperate. If I was an empathic laddie I’d ease up at this sign of weakness, but for better or worse, I’m not.

Let’s try a little thought experiment, in the spirit of market valuation. If Krugman decided to advertise tomorrow that he was interested in moving to a new school, how many universities do you think would make serious bids, and how high would the offered salaries be? I’m guessing, most of the top universities, and roughly the same as the highest paid academic currently at that institution. If me, or Arnold, or (AFAIK) anyone else reading this blog did the same, would we get anything like the same response. Er, no. (If I’m wrong here, and someone does want to offer me a Krugamian salary, it’s brian at crookedtimber.org.)

Returning to the topic at hand, a few people here either don’t know how to manage their life, or don’t understand how they do it. The issue for me isn’t what we do with the TCS pieces, it’s whether they deserve enough attention to bother making a judgment about them in the first place. Me, I find there’s too many things to do to spend time reading bought and paid for advertisements (unless they are for really cool electronics). Since that covers everything on TCS, and everything on the Finland Station, that means they are off the reading list. I know many advertisements are written by people who really believe in the copy. I still don’t read ‘em.

18

Matt Weiner 11.20.03 at 6:44 pm

Arnold, I think that anyone who has written the following passage:
“I think that billmon is using the standard liberal forecasting model, which predicts disaster based on the following logic: America is bad. George Bush is a doo-doo head. Just watch. Bad things are going to happen to America.
would be in no position to complain about cheap shots about his character, even if they had been made.

19

Matt Weiner 11.20.03 at 6:46 pm

“brian at crookedtimber.org”
Brian, if you had only included your e-mail in harvestable form, I am sure that this post would be generating many super-Krugmanian offers from Nigeria.

20

Richard Vagge 11.20.03 at 7:07 pm

In defense of Krugman

http://www.wws.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/eman.html

or not. You make the call.

I’m guessing that Crooked Timber should not even link to Krugman anymore because he is a “shill”.

Let be clear about this. Krugman’s paean to Enron capitalism in no way means that you can ignore other things he writes. Even when he writes about Enron, you shouldn’t ignore it. Evaluate them with the intellectual powers you’ve accumulated over many years. If TCS says something interesting and important, does the fact that it is paid for by lobbyists mean anything?

It’s the ideas, stupid.

21

JP 11.20.03 at 7:12 pm

I’m still waiting for someone to read a column and discuss it, rather than just take cheap shots at my character.

You must be brain-dead. How many times do people have to clarify the issue for you before you stop repeating the same irrelevant argument?

22

taak 11.20.03 at 7:21 pm

Quiz Time!

Who said this:

There has been a dissipation of the huge budget surplus and all we have to show for that is the city of Baghdad.

and this:

The fiscal polices of this administration are systematically sacrificing the future of this nation.

Was it

A. Paul Krugman
B. Robert Solow

Google for the answer. Hint: hostility to the Bush administration and being an MIT alumnus are not mutually exclusive conditions!

23

tim 11.20.03 at 7:28 pm

This is all very interesting, especially in light of the discussion on this list (Oct 07) about the credibility of climate scientists who had links to “interested” sources.

Here are a few quotes from that discussion:

“The Scientific Alliance is your basic pro-business lobby masquerading as an educational organization. Of course, none of that necessarily means that Stott?s conclusions are wrong, but I agree with Nabokov; lack of full disclosure makes me less likely to trust anything Stott says.”

“As for Prof. Stott?s site, something smelt wrong when I read it – having read the comments here I think I now know what it was – the smell of undercover corporate funding.”

“To be succinct, the reason to question the motivations of enviro skeptics is the same reason one would question the motivations of those scientists that work for the tobacco companies and continue to produce ?research? that shows smoking isn?t deleterious to your health.”

Do these sentiments not apply to the current storm?

24

Esq 11.20.03 at 7:30 pm

This is a question of journalism ethics. A journalist that is hired to write a specific article in a specific way is very different from a journalist who is hired to write an article about a specific subject any way that he/she wants.

In the first case a responsible journalist has an obligation to the reader to explain the conflict of interest. In the second case there is no conflict of interest.

I am positive that if we dig we will find the same weaseling going on by conservative commentators.

As it regards Krugman, I am certain that he would receive many offers from Universities. He is, however, an awful political pundit and a very mediocre economist who allows his political views to completely distort his science. I’m pretty sure that you could write several books on his descent into madness. The guy is going to need some tranquilizers if Bush is re-elected.

25

Keith 11.20.03 at 7:36 pm

Capitalism knows no bounderies, neither ethical nor ideological. They’d make whores of us all if they could.

Anyway, I’ll be over at my blog, happily writing what I want and not getting paid one dirty cent. And you know why I’m happy? because I’m writing and someone is reading it. It may only be five people but that’s five more than would be reading me otherwise.

Fuck Capitalism.

26

Jonathan Dursi 11.20.03 at 7:37 pm

Mr. Kling:

(I’m sorry about the typo in your name in my earlier post.)

For what its worth, I’ve skimmed some of your recent articles on TCS. Several of them, particularly when you focus primarily on economics, seem well and fairly written.

But its become clear that your publication is a wholly-owned subsidiary of DCI, an `Astroturfing’ company, the sole purpose of which is to generate plausible-sounding articles, faux-grassroots meetings, calls from `private citizens’ to congress, and letters-to-the-editor for its corporate clients. Given that, TCS as a whole can no longer be considered a source for disinterested searches for truth, although some of the articles there may still be gems.

People may (unfairly) consider your past articles tainted by this form of `prepaid journalism’ (what a great phrase, Lisa!). I don’t; I’m willing to assume that you knew none of this in the past.

It’s not horrible that TCS has an editorial bias; many publications do. What’s disturbing is that the bias is actually its buisness model. TCS is paid to have a certain point of view, and presumably the editorial staff enforce this. That, I think we all agree, is unbelievably shoddy journalistic ethics. People who continue to contribute to TCS are consciously deciding that they are willing to accept this lack of journalistic and editorial integrity, and readers of future articles will (justifiably) wonder whether such a lack of concern for fairness or ethics is also reflected in their writing.

27

Arnold Kling 11.20.03 at 8:51 pm

Someone asked me to name some MIT alumni who find Krugman offensive. I received a number of supportive emails after my essay on type M arguments, but I only saved the ones from Zvi Bodie (now at BU), Meir Kohn (now at Dartmouth, who said that my essay should have been circulated as a petition within the economics profession and then used as a paid ad in the New York Times), and Robert Lerman now of the Urban Institute.

28

Arnold Kling 11.20.03 at 9:11 pm

Several people have asked me to address the issue raised in the Washington Monthly article. The issue is, as one person put it, that TCS’ “bias is in the business model.”

I know I’m going to get flamed for saying this, but it is not clear to me that bias in the business model is worse than some other sort of bias. TCS is not a newspaper, and I do not consider myself a reporter. TCS is 100 percent opinions. So the issue of a “wall” between news and editorial seems irrelevant, unless I’m missing something.

No editorial page accepts all submissions. My guess is that many editorial pages solicit pieces on topics where the editor wants to have something said.

The solicitations I get from Nick seem to be pretty innocent–he asked me to write on the topic of immigration, for instance, because it seems to be a tough issue from a libertarian perspective. Out of close to 100 essays I’ve written, maybe a half dozen would have appealed to sponsors, and in those cases I had written at greater length and passion on my own, when I was just posting essays to my web site. See http://arnoldkling.com/~arnoldsk/aimstindex.html for my pre-TCS work.

The opinions that TCS authors present are personal opinions. Even Glassman’s Bell-bashing is his personal opinion, which goes back to the one time I heard him speak, a couple of years before TCS even existed. (It’s also Bob Metcalfe’s personal opinion, and Metcalfe is a conservative and, as the inventor of Ethernet, entitled to a point of view on telecom.)

I disagree with Glassman on telecom deregulation. Consequently, TCS has never published my personal opinion on that (although, interestingly, it has published my personal opinion on stock market valuation, which directly contradicted the Dow 36,000 view).

TCS doesn’t want me to write for them on telecom deregulation, because I disagree with Glassman’s opinion. So what? It’s still a free country. I wrote an article and submitted it to a couple of newspapers, but I they found it too long and too esoteric (it included references to Hayek and Stiglitz), so I just posted it to my web site. Some bloggers liked it. TCS isn’t taking any revenge. I’m actually more disappointed with the newspapers’ reasons for not running it than I am with TCS’.

I believe in engaging people with whom I disagree, as long as they are being reasonable. The “bias is in the business model” issue seems to me to be a pretty flimsy excuse for running away from someone else’s ideas.

One of my TCS essays that you might want to read is “news of my death,” in which I predict that all newspapers may end up on the patronage model, given what is happening with technology and demographics. If that turns out to be the case, then if you refuse to accept information from a patron-supported source, you could wind up totally uninformed. See
http://www.techcentralstation.com/070902B.html

29

Jonathan Dursi 11.20.03 at 9:36 pm

And how would you feel if the patron in question concealed their identity for quite some time, and suddenly you found the patron had ulterior motives?

I think we disagree about the future (and purpose?) of news sources. It’d be my contention that if you do accept information primarily from patron-supported sources you could windup totally uninformed, unless that patron’s interests are very strongly aligned with your own.

And of course its hard to judge that if the patron lies about who they are.

30

enthymeme 11.21.03 at 1:36 am

Good question. Just why is “bias is a publication’s business model” worse than any other sort of bias? Arguably, any paper’s left- or right-leaning bias can be said to be part of its business model. Part of the reason why something sells is because it panders to the tastes or biases of its readership. What then?

31

Brad Hutchings 11.21.03 at 1:51 am

I would just like to say that I have been reading Dr. Kling’s essays since before they were cool. While I haven’t and don’t agree with every thought he’s ever put to screen, he is one of the most thoughtful voices I have ever encountered and one of the most generous in sharing his thoughts.

You are all entitled to dislike TCS for whatever reason. Although, all you ever had to do was read their about page to see the connection with DCI. You’re even entitled to embark on a McCarthyite campaign like Kling’s Corante co-blogger Dana Blankenhorn did. But if your net catches the likes of Kling in it, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. If you took some time to read Kling’s essay’s, and see that his contibutions to TCS are on such blatantly single-chromosome right wing hot button issues such as computer chess, then you’ll know that you’re caught up in a supremely idiotic campaign.

-Brad

32

markus 11.21.03 at 2:27 am

mr hutchings, it has already been pointed out to you, that the admission of the DCI link is rather recent, following investigation for Confessores article. I’m glad to link to it again, and you would maybe do well to read it, before repeating the same ignorant comment on more blogs.

33

Matt Weiner 11.21.03 at 5:07 pm

one of the most thoughtful voices I have ever encountered
If someone who says that “the standard liberal analysis” begins “America is evil” is one of the most thoughtful voices you have ever encountered, then you need to encounter more voices. The respect with which Dr. Kling is viewed by some people astonishes me.

34

J Edgar 11.22.03 at 5:31 am

My god, how much free time do people have that they can read the Kling essay on ‘Type M’ arguments (I was suckered before on the taxonomy of fresh-water economists vs. salt-water economists. Give me a break.) and then write to Kling about the high quality of his ideas.

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