Toward Ethical Political Blogging

Jeff Alworth

Over the past few months--particularly the weeks leading up to the May primaries--commenters have been quick to question the motivation of BlueOregon bloggers.  Since we're headed into even more heated times as the midterms loom, it's worth mentioning a few ground rules we follow at BlueOregon, and a few of the principles that guide our mission.

1.  BlueOregon is unabashedly partisan.
When Kari, Jesse, and I started BlueOregon, our intention was front and center: "it'll be progressive."  It's the age of Bush and Minnis and we're liberals who wish it wasn't--and we are doing our best to make sure this age doesn't last.  We define progressivism (liberalism--pick your adjectival poison) broadly (when we define it at all), and welcome discussion among all flavors of the non-right spectrum: libertarians, moderates, far-lefties, Democrats, Greens, labor types, enviros, etc. 

2.  It's a blog, not a newspaper.
BlueOregon is not a "paper of record."  We're not a source of objective reportage, nor an exhaustive source.  We don't strive to cover every story--that's the Oregonian's job (or should be).  BlueOregon is a blog--an instrument of discussion, advocacy, and individuality.  Blogs are places to find pointed and varied viewpoints and rich conversations about timely issues.  We have actually done some original reporting, but it's rare (and usually involves a breaking story one of our bloggers is on-site to witness). We exercise almost no editorial oversight on what people write or what they say in comments--unlike a newspaper.  We encourage vistors to read BlueOregon for the trenchant thought, not as a sole news source.

3.  When we have an affiliation, we say so.
This is an important point for a site where many of the writers are actively involved in politics.  For example, Kari Chisholm is a strategic consultant and designs web strategies for many of Oregon's liberal politicians and causes. When he's writing a post or comment that involves one of his clients, he flags it. 

We ask other writers to be as careful when they comment, too.  If this were a newspaper, we'd probably have to be far more careful about restricting speech from some of these folks--they're obviously far from objective.  But blogs provide people the opportunity to engage in conversation with the actual politicos who run campaigns and design and implement policy. This is actually one of the great boons of blogs--where else can you talk to Randy Leonard, say, about the policies he's considering on the City Council?

4.  No one gets paid.
BlueOregon is a labor of love. There is no Bob Pamplin behind the scenes to worry about.  What gets posted here is an organic expression of the interest of the writers. You don't have to worry that we're censuring people to protect our advertisers (who, it should be noted, just pay for cost of the site). Nor do advertisers get off easily--we're not afraid to take their money and pummel them anyway.

5.  Our writers are not anonymous.
About six months into this project, we decided that writers here would use their real names when posting their opinions.  Bios for regular contributors are here, and we include a brief bio with each guest post.  The anonymous "voice of BlueOregon" posts ("in the news," "open discussion," etc.), are written in a neutral voice. (Progressive, but mostly neutral.)

We don't require our commenters to identify themselves, but we do ask that you use the same pseudonym every time you post.  That helps build your credibility, and gives you--the commenter--more influence in the community.  Which leads us to ...

6.  You have the power.
Ultimately, blogs are a form of communication.  Bloggers and commenters co-create the content. Bloggers, to cover our butts, provide links back to the source material so you can check up on us.  When we build a post around a funky source, we're almost always called on it.  Being an advocate doesn't mean being inaccurate.  I like to think that liberals are mostly right about things, so showing our work isn't a burden.  But if we don't, or if something doesn't pass the smell test, you can (and usually do) call us on it. Keeping our credibility is paramount to remaining relevant. 

As we've mentioned before, the great thing about the blogosphere is that it's somewhat self-policing. If you see an unsupported claim made here, challenge it. Demand facts, demand proof, demand sources, and demand details. And if you're one of the drive-by commenters--posting allegations and running, well, don't expect to get believed.

7. BlueOregon is a commons.
But every commons can face the tragedy of the commons - in which irresponsible users wind up destroying the very commons that they enjoy so much. We take very seriously one specific responsibility: to manage BlueOregon for the benefit of everyone who enjoys it. In particular, we're very comfortable limiting the participation of specific individuals whose behavior hurts the participation of everyone else. 

8. Don't like the rules of the game here?
Start your own blog. It's easy, it's free, and it's fun. Call us out, challenge our assumptions, make your own rules. We want BlueOregon to help expand Oregon's blogosphere, not stifle the debate.

  • christopher (unverified)

    Right on, Jeff. I thank all three of you for making BlueOregon a reality. It was a missing piece of the puzzle for the progressive spirit of the state.

    Nearly everything which makes Oregon great was a product of progressive thinking. It is essential that we stop the general downward slide of the last 15 years. Too many Oregonians were born on 2nd base thinking they hit a double.

    As to the trolls, I advocate a firmer hand. As you outline in your post, this is a place for progressives to hash out ideas, not another flame war battleground with idiots from the right.

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    As a counter-point, I don't like seeing posts deleted simply because they might present opinions different from a majority of progressives. I'm not afraid to defend my ideas in front of anyone. And I welcome any good intellectual argument that people can base off of properly sourced fact.

    But ad-homenum one liners? I wouldn't miss them. Luckily, we don't see much of that here anyway.

  • Winston Wolfe (unverified)

    Your "rules" make me think this is a Republican site.

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    As a former moderator at another progressive site for nearly two years I have admired the light touch utilized by the three of you when it comes to editing. By and large, we've been fortunate to have so many share their opinions here with a sincere sense of civility.

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    Thanks, guys. We do try to keep a light touch. We want the site to be mostly a watercooler discussion among progressives - but thoughtful interesting comments from righties are fine, too. What we don't want is the left/right fistfight that sometimes develops.

    Our usual approach in those situations is to act like a lifeguard ("no running by the pool!") or a chaperone at a dance ("six inches please"), not the queen of hearts ("off with their heads!")

    It doesn't always work, and it takes discipline by the commenting audience to keep things in check.

    A suggestion: don't take the bait, and encourage others to "ignore the troll"....

  • progvoice (unverified)

    I love this place (even if a lot of my posts are snipes,) but I would warn that the key to making Oregon great isn't progressive thinking, but progressive doing.

    Sometimes I fear that in venting frustrations in this format, we lose the verve to go out and make our dreams reality.

    Keep up the great work you 3.

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    Credit where credit is due--BlueOregon is a group product, and it is a great site because literally dozens of people make it so. Click on my name to see what happens when you don't have broad participation. We hoped this blog could become the nexus of conversation for progressives--but that means progressives actually have to come and discuss. To my joy and amazement, they do. I posted this by way of trying to show our hand and increase the trust and transparency so progressives continue to visit and share.

  • Glad to be Anonymous (unverified)

    Good rules... but maybe less applicable in the real world.

    I work in the Capitol. My superiors have made it explicitly clear that if I publicly veer from the party line in a manner such as posting a blog comment (or starting a thread), I'll be let go. Yes, this is illegal. Yes, it happens. Yes, on both sides of the aisle.

    So for some of us, we may not have the luxury of using our real names if we wanted to start a thread... or our own blog. Does that make our ideas and reasoning any less valid if we back it up with undisputed facts? Or are we saying that if you're a public employee, you lose the right to disagree with your boss even after-hours?

  • Jon Isaacs (unverified)

    This comment is in response to this post as well as the purpleoregon post below -

    The best thing about blueoregon is that the bloggers stand behind what they say and it's made very clear to readers that posts are the opinions' of the posters - much like the op ed page of the Oregonian. I think the best decision Kari, Jeff, et al ever made was ending the partice of anonymous posting.

    While I wish we could end anonymous commenting - one of the worst parts of internet message boards, blogs, etc is the rampant practice of making nasty unsubstantiated claims anonymously - I realize you guys are doing your best.

    The problem I have with purpleoregon as it is currently being run is the anonymous claims being made there by the main bloggers. I've commented on this over at purpleoregon in response to a column that accuses Ken Allen and AFSCME's leadership of lying to its members. That is a serious charge against a major public advocacy organization and if you're going to make it have the guts to make it publicly.

    The thing that will keep blueoregon thriving is its authenticity. Keeping things as above board and public - instead of anonymous - is in my view the best way to do that.

  • Wesley Charles (unverified)

    From the National Journal article Kari cited above:

    Kari Chisolm, one the of BlueOregon co-founders, also separately invited others to "steal" the principles. "Political blogging is an evolving thing, but that doesn't mean it has to be the Wild West," she wrote.

    Jeff's point that this is not an online newspaper is worth noting. Even though there is the In the News option, not every key story is posted here.

    That's why I am somewhat surprised that there has been no thread at all on the six eco-terrorists who will join abortion clinic bombers in prison for their criminal acts in the name of their cause.

    • Wes
  • LT (unverified)

    I agree with Glad to be Anonymous and disagree with Jon Isaacs:

    While I wish we could end anonymous commenting - one of the worst parts of internet message boards, blogs, etc is the rampant practice of making nasty unsubstantiated claims anonymously - I realize you guys are doing your best.

    While there have been some pretty obnoxious people here with made up names, there are also people whose choice is between never posting a comment OR using initials or a screen name (think of Salem Staffer, Different Salem Staffer, etc.).

    I belong to a Yahoo Group where my identity is known, but it is a group where the only participants are those who were invited to join based on being known in person to the moderator of the group. Basically, the membership is composed of activists in 2 neighboring counties.

    Blue Oregon has people who comment from all over, incl. foreign countries. It has people like Glad who are afraid of losing their jobs if their identity were to be known. It has people who are not self employed and either are job hunting or may be job hunting sometime in the future and don't want to be asked about a blog comment found by a search engine so it could be an interview question.

    That, folks, is the tradeoff. If you think the only people who could contribute to the Blue Oregon topics are those willing to use their full names, by all means institute that rule. But then there are those who might have first hand information ("I was there and what I saw is not what some are claiming happened"), people with institutional memory of events more than 10 years ago, people who don't want the whole wide world to know they wrote a particular comment.

    I have talked to friends who say they know people who read BO but never comment. I have known public figures such as a former candidate and a former elected official who said they read but never posted a comment.

    I think deleting off topic comments is a fine idea. So is ignoring trolls so they will go away. But not allowing anonymous comments means fewer contributions to the discussion.

    In a face to face water cooler conversation, a comment doesn't begin with "hello, my name is Jane Jones and my comment is...". If the person is not known to everyone there might be some "who was that?" conversation after a person leaves a face to face water cooler discussion, but people in another building, another city, another state will not hear about the conversation. As early Internet pioneers like Esther Dyson said, being online makes walls nonexistent (no more just talking over the back fence) but that can have unintended consequences.

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    On anonymity: it has its place. Anonymous blogging can be an enormous value--if the anonymous staffer started her/his own blog, we might learn things that could never be said publically. But there is a balance to strike: if blogs were only ever anonymous, we would quickly descend into rumor and chaos. We made the call to be public about our identities here, and I think it's been a good decision--it actually creates some space for other site to remain anonymous. In some ways, we can be the blog of record this way. Not better, just different.

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    Or are we saying that if you're a public employee, you lose the right to disagree with your boss even after-hours?

    This is one of those things about employment law that makes me completely crazy. I remember sitting in an HR training for managers where one of the sessions was about the acceptable reasons to fire someone.

    The short version: If you're an at-will employee (i.e. without a contract, union or otherwise) then you're AT WILL. They can fire you for anything except race, ethnicity, religion, creed, etc. They can fire you for smelling funny. They can fire you for getting drunk at a bar on the weekend. They can fire you because they just don't like you very much. And yes, they can fire you for blogging.

    Sad, but true. Personally, I'd like to see a law that says you can't get fired without a reason related to work performance.

    (That said, criticizing your politician boss in a public forum would probably qualify...)

  • KISS (unverified)

    As the saying goes " I'm glad there is you". Being a moderate with no real ties to political parties I appreciate that my comments have been left alone and not censored. I find that the extremists on both sides have alienated the voters to the point of not participating.Polarization is never the good, when carried to extreme. Blogging helps to swing the tide back to middle ground. I do admire that a republican can come to this forum and not be rediculed..I can't say that about right-winged forums.

  • Anne (unverified)

    A nice reminder. As one of the authors who is occassionally threatened by readers and opponents after my life, limb and employment, I still believe in unanonymity (non-anonymity? anti-anonymity? um, using your real name). Not just because it adds credibility for readers, but because it forces me to consider my remarks - if I can't say it in public (or if my mother would respond with horror if I said it in public), then I probably shouldn't say it at all. If I can say it in public, or if (in my considered judgment) it needs to be said in public, then I should say it strongly and stand by what I say. The most hateful and useless comments are always anonymous. And hats off to those bosses who appreciate that their public employee is also a citizen who gets to have First Amendment rights too.

    Thank you BlueOregon.

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