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Blog War Backstory

May 13, 2009, 12:00 am
By Julia Goldberg
Like many journalists, I enjoy journalism about journalism. The common vernacular is "media reporting," and it can range from industry news to trend reporting to quasi philosophical queries on the state of the industry.

And sometimes, I must admit, I enjoy reading the smackdowns.

So it was when I saw Santa Fe New Mexican reporter Steve Terrell's post on the blog war that had erupted among New Mexico's most prominent political bloggers, I thought it would make a good story for us to flesh out. And the logical person to report it was SFR writer Dave Maass. Dave has been a key force in helping this paper develop its online identity and both his online and print reporting on politics has made him very familiar with all of the parties in the dispute. And, like all of us who now write and report the news on different platforms, Dave understands the sometimes subtle distinctions that have been drawn in this particular argument.

In the course of Dave's reporting, this paper was peripherally—and inadvertently, I might add—drawn into the dispute. Because I think transparency is a core value of this paper and, in theory, most news outlets, I'd like to provide a little more background on the elements of the conflict that emerged publicly between this paper and Joe Monahan, who is a key figure in Dave's story this week. (I did respond immediately last week, and I stand by my response, but I'd like to provide a bit more detail with a tad less snark). Dave lays out the issues between the other bloggers thoroughly in his piece, but for the sake of clarity, I'm going to be a little bit redundant:

On May 4, Monahan reported that "people familiar with the matter" were saying that Amanda Cooper, daughter of US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, had been given immunity in the federal investigation of CDR, the pay-to-play scandal plaguing the office of Gov. Bill Richardson. Cooper helped manage Richardson's presidential campaign (she worked on his gubernatorial re-election campaign, as well). Monahan's story claims the same immunity for Chris Romer, a Colorado state senator, banker.

Monahan's report prompted quite a bit of blowback from the blogosphere. And Monahan responded to the criticisms leveled at him—essentially that his use of unnamed sources in this context was irresponsible—with an attack of his own. Monahan called out blogger Heath Haussamen and the New Mexico Independent with regard to their funding sources. He followed up those attacks with another post defending of the use of anonymous sources, and another and yet another poke at NMI regarding its anonymous funding. As Maass' story notes, Haussamen does not divulge all of his funding sources, nor does NMI, which is a nonprofit arm of the Center for Independent Media.

Into this fracas stepped Dave. Because much of the story revolved around other bloggers' criticism of Monahan, Dave wanted to balance it with comments in support of Monahan's blog. As such, he decided to call some of Monahan's online advertisers so that, as he put it to me, "someone would say something nice about him." (that's a paraphrase, but it's pretty close). I was aware of these calls and thought it was good to have that balance in the piece.

Dan Serrano, the advertiser and old friend of Monahan's who Dave quotes in his piece, apparently then called Monahan to inform him of our calls, according to Monahan's post. While not privy to the conversation between Serrano and Monahan, I did see the result—Monahan's post headline: NEWSPAPER TARGETS BLOG ADVERTISER.

Joe's post then speculates that Dave's calls were a "a bizarre and kind of creepy twist" in the ongoing blog battle over his post, and that Dave's calls had included an inference that they should not advertise on his blog, and makes a not-so-veiled threat to return the favor "and shake down some of the Reporter's advertisers."

As I conveyed to Joe, when we spoke on the matter, his interpretation, or Serrano's, of Dave's calls was completely off base And, had we been contacted prior to his posting, I would like to think Joe would have understood our motivations for calling his advertisers were, in fact, the opposite of what he concluded. Furthermore, for the record, neither I nor anyone in the editorial department has anything to do with the advertising department, and our publisher Andy Dudzik, who Monahan also mentions, is very hands-off when it comes to the editorial content of this paper.

I was lucky, as a reporter, to work for editors who taught me that good editors always defend their reporters while, at the same time, take every allegation or complaint seriously and investigate. I found the notion that Dave was trying to intimidate Joe's advertisers ludicrous and Joe's post, as I said in my immediate response, "paranoid." True, I have known, and worked with, reporters who employ an intimidating interview technique, but Dave generally tends more toward a jocular high-energy style. Furthermore, I can hear almost every word he says when he talks to people on the phone (it's a small office) and would have heard if he had had a hostile interview. Third, I was aware of why he was calling—his motivations, that is—so Joe's allegations made no sense to me. Finally, Dave is a professional journalist and no professional journalist would ever act as a hitman against advertisers, assuming any real editor would ever order such a thing. But here's the thing, in a day and age when many reporters are, in fact, creating their own online sites and acting as adman, editor, reporter and publisher, perhaps that line I take for granted between editorial and advertising isn't as obvious to others anymore?

At any rate, I met with Dave to review Joe's posted "allegations." Dave, of course, very willingly recounted for me the tone and approach he'd taken with the story. And he went one better: He let me know he had taped all of them. My review of his interview with Serrano confirmed to me that Dave conducted the interview professionally and with the friendly demeanor appropriate given his intentions. I am including that interview, and transcript, at the end of this post for anyone who is interested.

Despite the overly personal tone some of the aforementioned conflicts have taken, I think all of the issues that have been raised are important ones for those of us who care about this industry—how it's been in the past and how it will be in the future—to ponder. The use of anonymous sources has been debated for decades upon decades. The viral nature of the internet probably raises the stakes of how and when such sources are used. Blog-google "Amanda Cooper" and "Bill Richardson" right now and you might be left with the impression that the immunity rumor Monahan cites is a known fact. The NMI bloggers who raised the question about Monahan's use of anonymous sources make some good points, and one might wish Monahan had responded to those points a little less virulently and less personally.

At the same time, I also find Monahan's questions about NMI's funding valid for the reasons Roy Peter Clark points out in Dave's story. I'm certainly not convinced that news organizations deserve the same level of anonymity that a nonprofit such as, for example, the Animal Shelter, deserves. I'm inclined to think news organizations should provide readers with the same level of financial disclosure expected from elected officials and political groups.

Of course, I'm a reporter and I was broken in at the Rio Grande Sun so: I always want to know where the money is coming from. But I should say, my interest in the financials of CIM et. al isn't a reflection on the product produced by a group of committed New Mexico reporters and editors. I have complete respect for Haussamen's reporting and have worked directly with several of the NMI staff (David Alire Garcia and Gwyneth Doland) and think they all produce journalism of the highest professional caliber.

At the same time, I gotta say, I enjoy Joe's blog. It was one of the first NM political blogs I encountered when I started writing my own sad semi-abandoned blog (which is getting a makeover one of these days, seriously!) I don't think Monahan's blog serves the same function as the others mentioned, but I also don't think it's necessarily my job to police other journalists for responsible practices. Granted, we would never have printed a blind item of that nature (nor would we have printed a story akin to the attack on us he posted). But that's not to say I didn't enjoy reading it. And, after all, if Amanda Cooper—who is a little bit more than a private citizen, after all—is upset with what Joe writes, I'm pretty sure she knows how to get hold of him.

But that's just one journalist's opinion. Or wait, am I blogger right now?

Here's the transcript and recording of Dave's interview with Dan Serrano:








danserrano_monahan...

Dan Serrano, developer

SFR: I was calling, just sort of a, I'm doing a piece about this Joe Monahan vs. the Blogosphere thing that seems to be going down, so i thought I would call people who happen to be advertising on his site right now and just see how they feel about Joe Monahan and why they--in your example--what's the attraction to advertising on Mr. Monahan's blog?

DS: You want me to tell you the truth?

Sure!

He's got photos of me from college days and...I'm just kidding.

Hahahaha.

Joe Monahan's a friend of mine. I've known him for many years and when he started this blog, actually, I didn't start I guess for lack of a better term tapping into reading it until he was under way with it and I was basically led to it by a lot of folks that i know in the business and political world that I deal with here in Albuquerque that tell me that they would go to his blog to get updated political information, so I started going to it and I guess the thing that drove me to advertise or help sponsor him is the fact that I thought that a lot of what he was putting in his blog was fairly accurate and the other thing that I liked about it and I've had this discussion with Joe was the fact that 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 but what he does is he goes back to the old reporter's philosophy of that's see who the source is, let;s verify the information and if it has merit, then we'll put it out, versus some folks, even in the newspaper business that I've run into that just, you know, they get a hot story and they take it and run with it right away before checking all the facts.

So he talked to me and asked if I'd be willing to help sponsor him so he can keep the blog going and I thought this is a great way to get my name out and promote my business and everything else I'm dong along with the fact that he was telling me he was getting a tremendous amount of--I want to make sure I get the lingo right--hits on the web site, so I said, I'll help you out, we go back aways and if you look at my advertisement, my philsophy is real simple, I'm going to promote New Mexico and support New Mexicans as much as I can.

OK. Do you find that you get a lot of feedback or a lot of people contacting you through the ad you put on his site?

You know, a lot of people--You know, it's not helping me as much from a business perspective. I'm not getting folks calling me up and saying will you come develop a hotel for me or water park or anything else. What I get a lot of is people use that web site as a way to reach me from a business perspective or a political perspective. in other words a lot of the calls I get are just folks saying 'I've been trying to figure out how to get a hold of you and I got your number from Joe Monahan's website.'

Well, that's cool.

It's helped me there and then I'm active in the community and I'm active politically and I chair the YMCA board of directors and other things. It's led a lot of people that are trying to get ahold of me to me from that website.

Since you and Joe go back, I guess the natural question i have to ask is whether you're an Alligator or ever have been.

I have no idea what this Alligator stuff is other than i think he refers to them as people--

--who give him stuff anonymously, i guess.

--Yeah, who give him stuff anonymously. I'm not an Alligator. I don't do anything anonymously if that's what it is. I can tell you that there's times that because of our friendship Joe and I run into each other at the coffee shop or somewhere and we'll visit for a few minutes on different things and he'll ask me questions and if I have an answer I'll give it to him.

Have you ever noticed anything go up on his blog that you told and he attributed to an Alligator?

No.

OK. I just have to ask. I've been asking everybody.

I remember Joe from his days at the university when he was a reporter with the Daily Lobo. I'm not quite sure if he didn't beat up on me as a reporter when I was student body president or not.

You were student body president?

I was, at the university.

I see. Well, cool. That's all I had for you, Dan.

OK, perfect.

Thank you so much.

Thanks.

Bye.

 

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