Friday, November 09, 2007

Again We Go, Into the Not-So-Great Wide Open

Really, I'm trying to steer clear of the Wide Open flogathon, but the PeeDee spin on the story can be ignored only for so long. And apologies in advance for being a language nudnik. It's my nature

BuzzMachine via Bill Sloat highlighted this column by PD reader advocate Ted Diadun about why the paper fired Jeff, causing the wheels to come off. Here's what rankles:

    Any reporter knows that giving to a political campaign is prima facie conflict of interest.
* * *
    But that's the way things work in the blog world: "Yellow Dog Sammy" rejects the ingrained ethics of the newspaper world, preferring to read editors' minds and create his own reality. Other bloggers pick that up and repeat it as gospel, and suddenly we begin getting questions from all over the country about why we're letting Steve LaTourette run the newspaper.
Diadun is conflating "conflict of interest" with "bias." The two are intertwined, but nonetheless separate and distinguishable. A conflict of interest occurs when a journalist (or blogger) has some stake in outcome of a controversy that prevents him or her from exercising independent judgment. Bias means that the journalist/blogger has a pre-ordained inclination toward one side or another.

To use an example, I have a strong pro-chocolate bias, but not because I own a stake in Nestle. On the other hand, I have a personal stake in the outcome of whatever university restructuring might take place because both I and my wife work there. I also have a bias that would be there regardless because I think the University of Akron is a more solid institution than Cleveland State. A conflict of interest creates a bias but not every bias is the result of a conflict of interest.

A political contribution does not generate a conflict of interest. Contributing $100 to Bill O'Neill's campaign did not give Jeff a pecuniary interest in the outcome of the election. On the other hand, the contribution does offer overwhelming evidence of bias. It makes sense that PD reporters are not permitted to contribute to candidates because they are supposed to report objectively. Contributions would undermine their claims of objectivity. (And before you hoot and holler, remember that both political sides insist that PD reporting is hopelessly biased for the other side.)

To be fair to Diadun, much of the discussion of the WideOpen controversy had melded bias into conflict of interest, and it may well be that journalists are not terribly careful about distinguishing the two. Which is a problem, because they have different implications and should be subject to different rules.

In the case of Wide Open, bloggers should be held to the same standards as journalists with regard to conflicts of interest, but not with respect to bias. If a blogger has a true conflict of interest he/she either shouldn't write the post or at least should disclose the conflict. On the other hand, as has been noted throughout this discussion, the bloggers were hired because of their biases. Unlike reporters they should under no obligation to either consciously overcome their biases or to refrain from making them manifest.

Finally, this post from Jill points up the unacknowledged stake a newspaper has in reporting on elected officials -- access. I doubt that LaTourette exerted political pressure -- after all, what can a politician do to a newspaper -- but it has been reported that he threatened to stop talking to the paper. Cutting off access is the one real threat that a public official can credibly make to a news organ. Given the selective application of the "no contributions" rule, it certainly seems credible that LaTourette's threat at least figured into the decision.

Would that the paper had the courage to follow the example of WaPo sports writer Thomas Boswell. Boswell once wrote something about the Baltimore Orioles that so angered Manager Earl Weaver that the legendarily cranky skipper refused to speak to him for weeks. Finally one day Weaver went up to Boswell and told him that his wife had a dream in which God said that Weaver should talk to Boswell again. The reporter said, "That's great Earl, but I don't have anything to ask you right now."


John Ettorre said...

Great Boswell anecdote. This whole endless Wide Open dissection has become more than a little tiresome, don't you think? Time to just let it die.

Unknown said...

Hi Pho --

I am biased because I am a phan of Pho. You did an excellent job. It is dawning on me, Pho, that newspaper people don't quite grasp that blogs are not anything like newspapers; that they are not mini-newspapers, nor even some kind of a strange online adjunct version of a newspaper. Indeed, they are not the same thing at all, exactly as a novel is not the same thing as a newspaper.

Anonymous said...

I agree with John Ettorre so that Jill Miller Zimon won't proceed to write 57 reasons to quit reading the Plain Dealer or 57 reasons to abandon the mainstream media as a whole.

Her great work against Ohio Learn and Earn was acceptable. But, I believe she shouldn't expect to get her way every time she writes 50 or more posts against something.

The world does not revolve around Jill Miller Zimon (at least my world doesn't)

As for Pho, I'm actually a phan as well (a closet one) but I wish Pho would reassess his past positions on "stolen election guys." Also, it seems Pho is not hangin' with the bashin' and bannin' BS Blog Brigade as often.

This is a good thing.

However, I wish Pho would own up to some of his past transgressions that occurred while he hastily jumped on their head bustin' bandwagon a few times too many.

What Pho may perceive to be a personal strength (of not backing down) is actually Pho's biggest weakness. When Pho doesn't acknowledge mistakes, it creates situations that fester in the crawls of those he struck-out against, including me.

The Ohiosphere is well aware that Pho has been wrong about "stolen election guys" and the Ohiosphere has been showing disdain and for the BS Blog Brigade by not contributing to their blog traffic figures.

The BS Blog has dropped from #1 or #2 to rarely higher than #10 but more normally rated around #15.

This week, BS Blog is unlucky #13

hee, hee, hee...

But, I don't see Pho. Imagine that !!

Jeff said...

Thanks for your excellent discussion of the distinction between bias and conflict of interest. It may seem subtle at first blush, but it is devastating to Diadiun's claim, and indeed the entire PD position on contributions by bloggers.

I disagree with Ettore, despite my personal desire to put the episode behind me. The ongoing discussion in the blogosphere had tapped a rich vein of issues regarding the roles of reporter and blogger and the intersection of old and new media. With new posts (such as yours) adding clarity and insight to the discussion, I can't say that it is tiresome or pointless.

Again, thanks.

Scott Piepho said...


I agree that the continued discussion feels like overkill. That's why I was reluctant to reenter the fray. But this conflation of bias and conflict of interest rubbed me sufficiently raw that I had to.


Thanks as always. Love getting the phan mail.


Goddamit Dave. I hate it when you sound halfway rational. Here you are banned but your comment is reasonably unoffensive. I hate leaving it up on principle but I hate ripping it down when you aren't decompensating. Hopefully I've sufficiently baited you that you will go off again and I can bring it all down with a clear conscience.

In any event, I simply am not going to respond to election security concerns when it has nothing to do with the post. For now, you stay up but we are all waiting for Hickman to go Hickman.


Thanks back.

Jill said...

Thanks for writing this post, Scott - you're one of the voices I always hope to hear from - and can listen to repeatedly without finding you tiresome. And if I ever do? There's this thing called a mouse...

Anonymous said...

ahh... I'm all misty eyed. My last post isn't going to be phor pho's eyes only like my posts have been for the last few months.

Regardless, false denial and censorship are phreaky past times. Both sort of have a way of gettin' back to Pho in some way shape or Phorm.

All this hollerin' about Jeff gettin' axed by the PD sort of got me reminiscing about all the good times of being censored and banned by Pho, Jill, Russell, Jerid, Vessels, Nemeth, Haas and last but not least Timmy Russo.

I believe it was stupid of the PD to silence Jeff, similar to how I believe it is petty and non-productive for all of the above bloggers to single-out poor innocent little ol' me for censorship and banning.

That means you've all collaborated to silence at least part of the message that I regularly communicate and that type of coordinated effort is a cover-up my friends... plain and simple.

The question is: who is yelling the loudest to keep my message buried and banned ?? When you answer this question you'll have figured out who you are beholden to, for whatever reason... good or bad.

Now, run along and gang-up on the mean evil PD because we all know that they conspired with the dark side to quash one of my favorite bloggers named Jeff.

But in reality, if you all are going to justify banning me and others for the simple reason that you can do whatever you please with your blog, then shouldn't the PD be afforded the same consideration without having Jill brewing-up her "57 reasons" blog swarm bandwagon for all of her bashin' and bannin' buddies to jump on?

It doesn't look very good when those who are first to bash and ban numerous blog commenters turn out to be the ones yelling the loudest when one of theirs gets nudged out of the PD's Wide Open platform.

Some of you are arguing that Jeff's free speech rights were ripped-off by the PD while others are frantically trying to split the hairs of how blogs differ from the MSM and thus Jeff should have been granted a continuance to keep being partisan and/or biased.

Now, if I made those same arguments against those bloggers who banned me, the first justification that would be given is: "It's my blog and I can do whatever I want on my blog."

Why should it be any different for the PD? Why should they be expected to administer their blog any different than every other blogger in the Ohiosphere. If all other bloggers are allowed to arbitrarily ban someone for ANY reason (or no reason), shouldn't the PD be afforded the same rights ??

Regardless, I believe that the PD shot themselves in their Wide Open foot by opening up the Jeff Coryell can of worms. But, that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be allowed to pull the trigger if and when they choose to do whatever they want with their own blog.

John Ettorre said...

No, Scott, you usefully added to the debate, as you always do. But it did at least slightly pain me that you--yet another great blogger whom I follow with interest partly because your legal training has armed you with a careful attention to detail--have also fallen into the trap of echoing Jeff's use of the word "fired." He was not fired, and I'm STILL waiting for Jeff to address that point. It's downright shameful that he continues to use that word.

Scott Piepho said...


It's a thinly sliced semantic point. Jeff refused to follow a newly added work rule. He did not resign. The PD then terminated him. It's hard to deny they fired him. The only outstanding question is whether he brought the firing upon himself by refusing to follow a work rule or whether the PD imposed an unfair rule then fired him for refusing to follow it.

In other words, the question of whether he was "fired" or "not fired but effectively quit" is the same as the question of whether the PD acted properly in demanding that he steer clear of the LaTourette race.

I would note that the law recognizes a thing called "constructive discharge" when an employer acts so unfairly that an employee's decision to quit is tantamount to a firing and treated the same legally. You seem to be arguing for a constructive resignation. The law doesn't really recognize that. The law would call a termination for failure to follow a just a proper work rule a termination for cause -- still a termination but one that falls entirely on the employees, rights wise.

I understand if you are uncomfortable with using the loaded term. "Fired" not only means "terminated," it includes the connotation that the employee was terminated unjustly. "Terminated" is probably a connotatively more correct term and one I will use if once again a failure of will causes me to write on the issue. But "fired" is neither factually incorrect nor shameful -- just a bit tendentious.

Scott Piepho said...


Dave, Dave, Dave. Talk about playing with words.

Let's review history, shall we? You were not banned for voicing a point of view. I've had people roll in here to tell me I am wrong, I am stupid, I am wimpy, I am a loser, I have a small penis. All of those comments have remained up.

You were banned because you tried to use my blog to slander someone who was not part of the discussion. You were banned after I told you to stop slandering that person and you refused. To date the only cause I've had for banning anyone is what you did and I stand by the decision.

As George Nemeth once said, this is my house. If you come to my house and insult me, that's annoying but tolerable. If you are uncivil to my other guests, I have less tolerance. If you make false factual allegations about third parties, you are out of here.

I'm still on the fence about letting you back in. Behave yourself.

John Ettorre said...

I hear you on that issue. And your mini-disquisition on "constructive discharge" is a helpful new element in that debate.