Katie Couric once described bloggers as journalists who gnaw at new information “like piranhas in a pool.” But increasingly, many bloggers are also secretly feeding on cash from political campaigns, in a form of partisan payola that erases the line between journalism and paid endorsement.
“It’s standard operating procedure” to pay bloggers for favorable coverage, says one Republican campaign operative. A GOP blogger-for-hire estimates that “at least half the bloggers that are out there” on the Republican side “are getting remuneration in some way beyond ad sales.”
In California, where former eBay executive Meg Whitman beat businessman Steve Poizner in a bitterly fought primary battle in the campaign for governor, it sometimes seemed as if there was a bidding war for bloggers.
One pro-Poizner blogger, Aaron Park, was discovered to be a paid consultant to the Poizner campaign while writing for Red County, a conservative blog about California politics. Red County founder Chip Hanlon threw Park off the site upon discovering his affiliation, which had not been disclosed.
Poizner’s campaign was shocked to learn of the arrangement, apparently coordinated by an off-the-reservation consultant. For Park, though, it was business as usual. In November 2009, for instance, he approached the campaign of another California office-seeker — Chuck DeVore, who was then running for Senate — with an offer to blog for money.
“I can be retained at a quite reasonable rate or for ‘projects,’” Park wrote in an e-mail to campaign officials. In an interview, Park defended himself by claiming, “nobody has any doubt which candidates I’m supporting,” and noting that his blog specifies which candidates he “endorses.”
But while Red County’s Hanlon expressed outrage at Park’s pay-for-blogging scheme, questions arose about his own editorial independence when it emerged that Red County itself had been taking money from the Whitman campaign.
In December of 2009, Red County received $20,000 from the Meg Whitman campaign, which has sent the site $15,000 a month since then.
The money is ostensibly for advertising, yet by conventional measures the numbers don’t add up. According to Quantcast, Red County reaches around 125,000 unique viewers per month. Two new media industry experts confirmed that, given such a readership, Whitman’s ad purchase is “ridiculously” expensive, surpassing the going market rate for such ads by 1,000 percent or more.
In an interview, Hanlon said he had a “very, very direct conversation” with the Whitman campaign that “advertising and editorial are two very different things.” Notably, Whitman’s penchant for throwing money around is well known in California political circles.
Ad purchases at above market rates are a common means by which some campaigns seek to influence bloggers, according to numerous campaign operatives and bloggers.
Bloggers, aware of this, have begun to request improbably high rates on their own.
Florida political blog Shark-Tank.net, which reaches about 15,000 viewers per month, is asking campaigns for $3,200 a month for a large banner ad. For that same price, an advertiser could purchase similar space on political blogs reaching over 1 million readers each week.
Shark-Tank.net managing editor Javier Manjarres said in an interview that his site’s advertising and editorial decisions are “completely separate” and noted a “tough love” article the site published about Senate candidate Marco Rubio, one of the site’s biggest advertisers.
Beyond advertising purchases, some bloggers earn money as consultants to campaigns.
Lowell Feld, who writes for the liberal political blog Blue Virginia, has received a considerable amount of money from Democratic campaigns, including $21,000 from Lt. Gov. candidate Jon Bowerback in 2009. Feld discloses his consulting work on his blog.
Jerome Armstrong, considered by many the founder of the liberal blogosphere, has consulted for numerous Democratic candidates, raking in tens of thousands of dollars in fees.
Besides campaigns, industry groups and other political groups oftentimes pay bloggers for their insights.
Dan Riehl, who writes the Riehl World View blog, is one of Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele’s most vocal defenders in the conservative blogosphere. When The Daily Caller reported the RNC spent $1,946 at a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex acts, Riehl blasted the piece as a “pathetically weak story tailored to play to the Left and create problems for the GOP.”
“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.
Other bloggers openly lament how few campaign dollars are flowing their way. Conservative blogger Robert Stacy McCain complains that politicians aren’t purchasing more advertising on blogs. “Advertising buys good will,” he says.
If it appears that conservative bloggers are more likely to take campaign money than their liberal counterparts, there may be a reason. According to Dan Riehl, conservatives can’t rely on the infrastructure of foundations and think tanks that supports so many liberal bloggers.
Riehl has made it a goal to mobilize conservative benefactors and organizers to establish a funding infrastructure mimicking what the liberal “netroots” created during the Bush years. “They did it the smart way,” Riehl says.
On the left, many of the once independent bloggers are now employed by, or receive money from, liberal organizations like Media Matters, the Center for American Progress and Campaign for America’s Future.
Some critics allege that the funding sources have distorted the once vibrant voice of the liberal blogosphere, discouraging dissent in favor of staying “on message” to help President Obama and Democrats in Congress pass their legislative agenda.
Indeed, many of the groups now employing liberal bloggers meet with White House aides for a weekly strategy session on Tuesday afternoons organized by the group Common Purpose. It was here that Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously told independent-minded liberals that they were being “fucking retarded” for straying from the party line.