One major difference between conventional journalism and the blogosphere, according to journalism scholar Roy Peter Clark, is the first has a well-established tradition of “finding out, sorting out and checking out,” while the latter is still a chaotic laboratory of ethical experimentation.
“Blogs haven’t been around enough for there to be codes of behavior, although some of them, I believe, are being developed as we speak,” Clark, senior researcher at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based journalism school Poynter Institute, tells SFR. “ There is still, I think, in the online world in many of its manifestations, an outlaw culture that is kind of the antithesis of what we would expect in traditional journalism. Those two cultures are going to be in conflict all of the time.”
In New Mexico, this conflict escalated to an all-out battle this month when a group of blogging reporters hammered veteran political blogger Joe Monahan for his use of anonymous sources. The bloggers are attached to the nonprofit Washington, DC-based Center for Independent Media’s news site, The New Mexico Independent. They slammed Monahan after he reported an unverifiable tip about grand jury proceedings in the federal investigation of financial institution CDR’s state contracts and contributions to political committees controlled by Gov. Bill Richardson.
“I use anonymous sources to bring you insights on events that otherwise would go uncovered,” Monahan writes on his “About” page. “However, I rely mainly on sources I personally know and who have lengthy experience.”
Monahan calls these sources his “Alligators” and routinely promises to chastise them when information they provide turns out to be inaccurate—which occurs more often than other journalists say is acceptable.
Although she considers Monahan’s blog a daily guilty pleasure, NMI writer Marjorie Childress kicked off the latest firestorm of criticism. In a post on her personal blog, Childress chided Monahan for reporting rumor as fact, giving political operatives a platform for smears and failing to adequately address proven inaccuracies in his reporting.
“He paints this perception that he is totally in the know about everything that’s happening through his Alligators, when it could just be one Alligator and Joe and we don’t know what their agenda is and we don’t have anyone vetting it,” Childress says.
Print journalist turned blogger and NMI staffer Heath Haussamen quickly seconded Childress’ complaint that Monahan lacked context in his report that two Richardson associates—US Sen. Tom Udall’s daughter Amanda Cooper and Colorado state senator Chris Romer—had received immunity in the “pay-to-play” investigation.
“The way [Monahan] sources or doesn’t source things means he gets stuff wrong all the time related to people’s jobs, people’s political plans and that kind of stuff,” Haussamen tells SFR. “My attitude in the past has been to just ignore it...It makes it sound like they admitted to some kind of felony and eventually will get a plea agreement.”
Monahan immediately went on the offensive against not just Haussamen and Childress, but a whole string of bloggers and journalists. Monahan defended his use of anonymous sources and pointed out that just as the public doesn’t know the identify of his Alligators, they are equally in the dark about the funding sources behind both the NMI site and Haussamen’s blog.
“Well, Heath, when you stop taking anonymous donations on your website to support your ‘journalism' and also reveal what individuals contribute to the nonprofits that finance the online newspaper you draw a paycheck from, we’ll be able to take you seriously,” Monahan writes.
Haussamen tells SFR that his anonymous donors are akin to a newspaper’s subscribers and do not have enough influence to warrant disclosure.
“We’re not talking about a lot of money here,” Haussamen says. “That is 1.8 percent of my business’ income and they’re all small contributions. That said, I do think it’s important to be transparent. It’s something I’m thinking about.”
Monahan also accused NMI of being a front for political fundraiser Eli Lee, whose nonprofits Center for Civic Policy and Center for Civic Action are currently taking criticism for campaign efforts during previous election cycles. Both organizations describe themselves as nonpartisan with interests in ethics reform, health care and environmental issues.
“[O]f course it’s not true,” Lee writes in an emailed statement. “Joe Monahan’s M.O. is to level baseless allegations at people and then try to get them to defend themselves. It’s really irresponsible. Monahan is a public relations guy with an agenda, not a news guy.”
Monahan declined to answer questions for this story. On May 8, he also wrote a critical post regarding the reporting for this story (see this week’s SFReeper.com featured post “Blog War Backstory” for more on this).
NMI Managing Editor David Alire Garcia (a former SFR staff writer) says while Lee played a role in early fundraising efforts, neither Lee nor his organizations are currently involved in NMI. However, Tracy Dingmann, the communications director for the Center for Civic Action, headed by Lee, contributes regular op-eds to the website.
Traditionally, a newspaper reader could assess a publication’s major financial interests by reviewing the advertisements on its pages. As that business model weakens, a new nonprofit journalism model is evolving—one in which a news organization may not always publicize its revenue sources. This secrecy may bring suspicion upon a newsroom’s independence, Clark says.
“I do think that one of the best tools that journalists have to overcome any suspicion of ‘conflict of interest’ is full disclosure,” Clark says. “Full disclosure in the case of a nonprofit might entail revealing where the contributions are coming from.”
The Center for Independent Media operates news sites in five states and Washington, DC, where its fundraising operation is based. Currently, CIM lists 16 funders on its site, including the labor union SEIU and the Open Society Institute, an organization founded by noted Democratic Party fundraiser George Soros. Although CIM also accepts money from nonpartisan organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes government transparency, it accepts private contributions through PayPal, as well.
Garcia insists a firewall exists between CIM’s DC fundraisers and his local reporters.
“There hasn’t been a single instance where Eli or anyone from CCP has attempted to influence our coverage on anything,” Garcia says. “It is the case that CCP [Center for Civic Policy] was involved in helping to identify funders, primarily foundation supporters, a year and a half, two years ago, to make NMI possible. That’s something we disclose routinely when stories deal with a nonprofit issue that CCP is involved with. We’re not a front group for anybody.”
Although the debate seems to be between CIM’s traditionalism and a seemingly “new school” outlaw mentality, Monahan has worked in radio and political communications for 30 years.
One Monahan advertiser, construction company owner Dan Serrano, describes Monahan as an old-timer who adheres to journalistic traditions as much, if not more so, than his critics.
“I know that he probably gets a ton of calls and emails about leads that people would love for him to put in the blog,” Serrano, who was University of New Mexico student body president when Monahan was editor of the Daily Lobo in the 1970s, tells SFR. “But what he does is he goes back to the old reporters’ philosophy of: See who the source is...verify the information and, if it has merit, then put it out, versus some folks...they get a hot story and they take it and run with it right away before checking all the facts.”
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