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July 2, 2016

Corrupting "Earned media"

The Intercept reports on several news media who are selling special services at the national political conventions — meetings, cocktail parties, and more. The services are corrosive. Some are explicitly corrupt, “…they make explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.”making explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.

The less controversial services are corrosive because they let the media take money from the people they cover. Having spent a few decades as a marketing communications guy, I can promise you that in every business considering these offers, the conversation includes someone saying, “It doesn’t matter if no one comes to the cocktail party. It’d still improve our relationship with the publication.” Why? Because it’s a way to pay the journal money. That’s corrosive.

Larry Lessig points out that it’s not much different from news organizations tuning their coverage to their ratings. But such tuning at least caters to perceived piopular interest. These new services let an organization or candidate buy coverage despite a decided lack of public interest. It is worse than buying ads because the news media have traditionally had a “Chinese wall” between the advertising and editorial departments. This has been a fairly effective way of protecting editorial content from the direct influence of the marketing needs of the journal, even though the wall is sometimes breached, and Time Magazine has shamefully torn it down.

Once the media started letting companies pay for phony news coverage, they pretended to honor the breach by distinguishing “earned” and “paid” content. “Earned content” is coverage provided by media of events they think are newsworthy. “Paid content” is, well, paid content. Non-sleazebag companies and their PR reps expect media to mark paid content as paid for. Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company, created ethical guidelines that not only say that the paid content must be well marked, but that Edelman will have its own Chinese wall between the processes by which earned content is pitched (“Yo, I have a client who’s invented a time travel machine. Wanna an interview? How’s yesterday for you?”) and the negotiations that result in the placement of paid content. (Disclosure: I had a tiny hand — Trump-sized — in drafting those guidelines.)

That’s better than nothing, but paid content still makes me queasy. Companies are willing to pay for content precisely because it looks like real coverage and thus tends to be taken more seriously than obvious ads. This erodes the phenomenological line between news and ads, which is bad for democracy and culture. Indeed, “the point of paid content is to erode the line. ”the point of paid content is to erode the line.

But letting candidates pay for interviews takes this to a whole new level. This is what The Intercept says:

Sponsors who pay $200,000 are promised convention interviews with The Hill’s editorial staff for “up to three named executives or organization representatives of your choice,” according to a brochure obtained by The Intercept. “These interviews are pieces of earned media,” the brochure says, “and will be hosted on a dedicated page on and promoted across The Hill’s digital and social media channels.”

The Hill says the resulting interviews will be earned media. Suppose the interview is stupid, boring, self-serving and non-newsworthy? If it weren’t, the client wouldn’t be paying for it. But The Hill is promising it’s going to run anyway because the client paid them $200,000. That is the very definition of paid content. So, by calling it “earned content,” The Hill can only mean that the article will not be marked as paid content, even though that is precisely what it is.

This corrupts the already corrosive practice of accepting paid content. It is disgraceful.

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September 6, 2015

Lessig: Winning by losing

As of this morning, Lawrence Lessig is $9,000 short of his million dollar Kickstarter goal of funding his presidential bid. It look very much like Larry will be running for president.

It is a weird bid with virtually no chance of winning. Which makes it easier to support it.

Ethan Zuckerman’s post is what you should be reading about this. You should stop reading this post and go to his now.

Still here? Ok, that’s a mistake, but it’s up to you.

Ethan and I agree about Larry’s brilliance, his dedication, and his good heart. I’ve know Larry for about fifteen years, and I trust him twice as much as I distrust every other politician in the race. I completely agree with him that we’re never going to get to where we need to be so long as money buys elections and thus buys politicians. I think Larry would be a better president than almost all the people running. I love the cleverness of the electoral hack that Larry’s come up with.

But here’s my concern.

I agree with Ethan that Larry has no real chance of winning. If so, then his campaign is a “winning by losing” tactic: if it demonstrates that there is wide support for real campaign finance reform, then we’ve all won. Big Time, as one esteemed politician once said.

We will have won if Larry garners enough support in the early part of the campaign to force the issue onto the agenda. Thinking about him at the debates bringing the conversation back to the funding issue makes me happy.

But, there is one slightly longer-term danger that worries me. When Democrats step into the voting booth on primary day, some percentage of people who think campaign finance reform is important are going to cast their vote for Bernie, Hillary, or Joe because they don’t want to “waste” their vote on a symbolic gesture. But there are virtually no people who think finance reform is important but not all-important who are going to vote for Larry instead of for a “real” candidate. The result could very well be, I’m afraid, that Lessig’s totals in the primaries will under-represent support for campaign finance reform. His candidacy may therefore make finance reform look more marginal than it actually is.

So, there’s a possible lose-by-losing outcome here. That’s my fear.

But I find this very hard to think about without knowing who his VP candidate will be, for this is not really a referendum. In a referendum, your vote on an issue is independent of your vote for a candidate. In this case, though, you’re also voting for a president-in-waiting who will take over once Larry resigns. If you favor campaign reform but don’t like his VP, will you still vote for Larry? And vice versa? The results are going to be hard to parse, which is not true of actual referenda.

If the primary results undercount the support for the issue, my hope is that that actual vote count will be far less influential than Larry’s presence in the campaign before the voting begins. Assuming that he can’t actually win, I and all (?) of his supporters hope that Larry does well enough on the campaign trail that his campaign gets coopted by one of the more electorally plausible candidates, so that campaign finance reform becomes a major issue in the campaign.

For that to happen, we need to support his campaign now. Which I do. But, weirdly, I don’t support only his campaign.

This addendum will self-destruct, possibly very soon.

My family talked briefly this morning about who Lessig’s VP might be. One of us thinks it’ll be a conservative. I have an odd hunch that I recognize makes no actual sense: Al Gore for VP?

But another had the interesting idea that Lessig will promise it will be whoever comes in second in the Democratic primaries. That way, if you prefer, say, Sanders to Lessig as an actual president, but you support campaign finance reform, you could get both by voting for Lessig. Of course, Sanders wouldn’t want his vote split. I find this all difficult to think about…


November 11, 2010

Lessig backs Tea Party

Now for the de-sensationalizing of that headline.

Lawrence Lessig is indeed finding common cause with the Tea Party, but only with one part of its agenda: fighting earmarks — a position that has put the Tea Party at odds with many members of the Republican Congressional delegation.

If any of the Tea Partiers want to back the end of gerrymandering, I’d be happy to tip my liberal hat at them.


October 12, 2009

Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough

I’ve been in a small round of email among friends, arguing over exactly what Larry Lessig means in his article in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” It is a challenging article for those of us who support government transparency, and Larry is obviously both influential and brilliant. So, I wanted to be sure that I was following his argument, since it is somewhat discursive.

Here’s what I think is a guide to the flow of the article, with links to the eleven Web pages across which the article is spread. (I’ve made judgment calls about where to divide topics that span a page.) The following is all my gloss and paraphrasing; let me know if you think I’ve gotten it wrong. Note that I intend this only as a guide to reading the article, not as a substitute. I’ve purposefully filed off the nuances, grace notes, and subtleties that make this a Larry Lessig article. (Note also that the italicized bits are not me interjecting; they’re the article’s own objections and qualifiers.)

Section I: Transparency is not necessarily good

[link] Sometimes, transparency that seems good is bad. (“Punch-Clock Campaign” example.)

Especially bad is “naked transparency,” which wants massive amounts of government data made available over the Internet. Naked transparency will “simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”

Qualifier: Most transparency projects are not bad.

[link] Transparency projects that track the flow of money and influence are particularly bad.

[link] A short history of transparency. (Brandeis)

To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.”

Is that what’s happening with what naked transparency reveals? The supporters of transparency haven’t asked that question.

[link] Section II: Transparency leads to untruth

Mere correlations between politicians, donors, and votes does not tell us if the politician is corrupt.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.

[link] Yes it does! (Hillary Clinton example.) Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.

[link] No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere. (Surveillance camera example.)

[link] Section III: How to respond

Can we get the good of transparency without the bad? No. (JAMA example.)

[link] The transparency argument is following a familiar pattern. Similarly, tech has enabled a “free content movement” that has disrupted the newspaper and music industries.

Let’s not follow that pattern in how we respond. We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info.

[link] We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect. (William Fisher and Neil Netanel examples.)

[link] The solution is obvious. Transparency is inevitably going to raise false suspicions. We are prey to those suspicions because we already believe that politics is corrupt. Therefore, we need to eliminate political corruption.

To eliminate political corruption, we should enact the Fair Elections Now Act.

Caveat: The name of the act is misleading. It’s not about fairness.

Without this, we are doomed.

The transparency movement should support campaign finance reform, and should constantly remind us that transparency is not “just a big simple blessing.”

[link] Likewise for the rest of the Internet triumphalism.