On That Horrid Daily Caller Piece…

This might come off as a bit of inside baseball, or at least something of limited general interest. And if it does, I apologize and you’re excused from having to go below the fold. But today the Daily Caller ran a story which accuses conservative bloggers of participating in a form of payola – in which the Republican Party and some of its candidates might be throwing money around and “buying” positive press.

The piece casts folks like me in a terrible light and I find it as hideously unfair as it is nakedly self-serving. Tucker Carlson, as the “face man” of the Daily Caller, and reporter Jonathan Strong have done damage here and need to be called out for it.

First, one of the major problems within conservatism is the unfortunate prevalence of some pundits and media figures on the Right to assault individuals within the movement or even the movement itself. Bob Tyrrell, in his excellent recent book After The Hangover, addressed the subject this way…

“The diminishment of other conservatives and of conservative organizations by these self-marketing opportunists is an example of what social anthropologists studying other marginalized people call “crab antics.” Studying upward mobility among marginalized populations in the Caribbean, anthropologists have noted that many act like crabs at the bottom of a bucket. When it is tipped, the crabs scramble to leap over one another…Some pull others back. The crabs at the top must always evade their rivals’ outstretched claws or fall back into the bucket.”

Carlson has made a career as a “pet” conservative on non-conservative television networks and in non-conservative publications (CNN, PBS, MSNBC, Esquire, The New Republic, The Daily Beast), in such role as to sing a hateful song about other conservatives for his dinner. Recent examples have been in his piece trashing Grover Norquist’s integrity in The New Republic and, more recently, the Daily Caller’s hammering of Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele for the Voyeur scandal. Carlson’s bailing on the Iraq war after initially supporting it was another example of his infidelity as a “conservative” pundit.

While those examples are arguably justifiable – there are things to criticize about Norquist, Steele has indeed run a loose ship at the RNC and there was a lot to criticize in Iraq before President Bush managed to turn things around and win the war – what his site ran today was something else altogether.

The gist of the story is that most conservative blogs monetize themselves by selling favorable content to Republican candidates. Maybe that’s true in a few cases; it mentions RedCounty.com and its relationship with Meg Whitman’s campaign in California. It quotes Robert Stacy McCain in discussing the monetary challenges faced by the New Media on the right. Primarily, as McCain notes, conservative foundations and organizations are a lot less generous in patronizing blogs on the right than left-wing foundations and organizations are with “progressive” sites. This largely flows from the fact that there is a whole lot more money percolating in left-wing foundations and organizations than on the right side of the aisle; a fact the Daily Caller article neglects to mention.

And so, the article says, more conservative blogs than not are surreptitiously selling out their content. Dan Riehl, a vocal critic of DC’s reporting on the Voyeur affair, is painted with the “payola” allegation.

“Riehl World View” readers might be interested to know that Riehl is not simply a blogger, but also a paid consultant to the RNC. In an interview, Riehl said he was paid an amount in the “hundreds of dollars” for writing a strategy document on how the RNC could better reach out to bloggers. Riehl said his motivation for defending Steele was to aid the Republican Party, and that he didn’t disclose his consulting work because, “I didn’t see it as having anything to do with my views.”

“I never made enough money to be bought,” he said.

This has generated no small amount of uproar within the blogosphere. Riehl’s response to the article is, as one might imagine, more than a little heated. McCain responds this way:

There is a notable tendency of all organizations on the Right to hire buttoned-down, strait-laced College Republican types. There is a glaring disconnect between these GOP clonebots and the conservative blogosphere, which tends to attract hell-raisers, wild cards and loose cannons who don’t like being told what to say and do.

McCain also notes that stories like what the Daily Caller has put forth create something of a dilemma for bloggers – namely, if you write what you believe, would it be unethical to write more of it because somebody wants to pay you for it?

What McCain neglects to mention is that while the Daily Caller calls itself a news site, it operates in the exact same space as the bloggers its piece criticizes – which means that today’s attack is nothing other than self-serving “crab antics,” as Tyrrell so eloquently describes, in an effort to increase traffic and, ultimately, market share.

Meanwhile, John Hawkins at Right Wing News, who is a community organizer of sorts for the conservative blogosphere, says the Daily Caller’s charges are wildly overblown:

I don’t deal with that many state bloggers, so I can’t speak as to what’s going on with them. But, on the national level, with blogs you’ve heard of — what was said there is not only wrong, it’s spectacularly wrong.

To the best of my knowledge, there just aren’t that many name brand bloggers or even former name brand bloggers who do a significant amount of consulting work. Off the top of my head, let’s see there’s Lorie Byrd, Bettina Inclan, David All, Jon Henke, Patrick Hynes, Liz Mair, Soren Dayton, & Patrick Ruffini.

That’s not an exhaustive list and there may be a few more that I’m forgetting, but that should be a pretty good grouping of the main names — and if you already know who half of them are, congrats, you’re officially a blogosphere junky.

Now, you may be saying, “Okay, so there aren’t a lot of bloggers working as consultants, but what about the allegation that bloggers are being paid for favorable coverage?” Here’s my answer to that: I’ve been a blogger for almost a decade and I’ve been a professional blogger since early 2005. In all that time, I’ve never even had anyone offer to pay me for favorable coverage on RWN. That should tell you something.

I can pick up the story from here, because you could call me one of the “state bloggers” Hawkins can’t speak to. Here in Louisiana, there is one purveyor of a conservative site who doesn’t run advertising at all but takes money from candidates in return for slanting coverage.

One. That’s it.

To the best of my knowledge, that’s the extent of the payola in the Louisiana conservative (and for all I know, the left-wing as well) blogosphere.

That’s hardly the “standard practice” the article says, or the “at least half” it accuses of being in on this supposed pay-for-content scam. The article seems like one more example of Carlson’s “crab antics,” and the hit to the credibility of blog sites which provide, in my estimation, more lively and insightful commentary and research than the legacy media has done in more than a decade is significant.

I can say without reservation that here at the Hayride we’re not in on any payola program. I’ve never claimed that we’re objective in providing content. We’re unabashedly conservative. I initially conceptualized this site as a place that ultimately James Carville and Mary Matalin might both be comfortable posting their opinions, but I realized quickly that the left has no shortage of venues to spread its message and decided to focus on what our readership has told me they want from us. Namely, passionate, honest reporting and commentary from a cogent perspective. In my case, that means a conservative perspective.

Now, like McCain notes, in my dealings with various organizations, campaigns and advocacy groups I will run across story ideas and narratives seeking avenues all the time. If those ideas and narratives interest me I’ll run them on the Hayride. A lot of them will actually percolate around the web and get us some of the all-important traffic which is the lifeblood of the site. But what leads me to the decision whether something is interesting enough to run is a very simple question; “do I think our readers would find it worth reading?”

Not “how much am I getting paid to put this on the site?”

Maybe that’s going on elsewhere. And maybe I’m a sucker for not shaking folks down for money every time I write something. If I’m now going to be accused of that anyway, that is.

Look, we have political advertisers on this site. For example, Jeff Landry’s campaign has banner space. David Vitter’s campaign does, too. We’re getting another candidate in here in another couple of days. And SaveUSEnergyJobs.com is advertising as well.

But as you’ve seen on our site, two things are true. First, before any of those groups or organizations put one dime in our bank account we were saying good things about them. I like Landry as a candidate for Congress, just like I like Hunt Downer and Kristian Magar. I’ve said that repeatedly and I’ve tried to be as objective as possible in our coverage of the GOP primary in the 3rd District race – which is getting increasingly difficult as that race has gone down the toilet.

And while nobody who supports Vitter thinks he’s perfect, the guy votes exactly the way I want him to – of course I’m going to be friendly toward him and nasty toward Charlie Melancon, whose record in Congress put him to the left of Dollar Bill Jefferson in 2008, for crying out loud. As for the American Energy Alliance, the group behind SaveUSEnergyJobs.com, what they’re trying to do is get the moratorium lifted and fight new taxes on the oil industry. What Louisiana conservative website wouldn’t be singing the same tune they are? I took a trip to DC a couple of weeks ago on their dime in order to help tell the story of Louisiana people whose livelihoods are being destroyed by federal action to people who don’t know what’s going on and don’t seem to care, and blogged about the trip, but nothing I said since that relationship began is any different than what I said when the asinine moratorium was begun. Nor will it be.

As such, I can honestly say our content has not been influenced by our advertisers. The content on this site is exactly the same as it would be if we didn’t have them aboard.

And the second truth here is that when political advertisers come to us, the discussion is about their ad space and our readership. Our content is not part of the discussion, at least not in the sense that a relationship with them will change our perspective. That’s why the National Organization for Women or the Sierra Club aren’t likely to show up on our site. But when a candidate or an advocacy group turns up, in all likelihood not only will you see their ad but when we talk about their stuff in the content area it will be because we agree with their position.

This stuff isn’t rocket science anyway; when we’re approached by an advertiser it’s because they already see what we’re writing and recognize that the majority of our readers will be receptive to their message. There’s no point in Vitter’s campaign approaching the Daily Kingfish, for example – even if they tried to buy those guys off, they’re never going to buy off the lefty readers of that site and all they’ll end up doing is making a mess. They’re smart enough to recognize that, so they don’t throw money around over there. But Melancon’s campaign, I suppose, might.

The idea that we’re bought is offensive, and it’s laughable. Anybody who could buy me this cheaply is wasting his money. And the broad-brush assault the Daily Caller perpetrated today from their East Coast Establishment crab bucket is reprehensible.



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