If only bloggers had the Washington Post's high ethical standards

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Here's how the New York Times begins an article about new Federal Trade Commission rules about bloggers who review products:

FOR nearly three decades, the Federal Trade Commission's rules regarding the relationships between advertisers and product reviewers and endorsers were deemed adequate. Then came the age of blogging and social media.

On Monday, the F.T.C. said it would revise rules about endorsements and testimonials in advertising that had been in place since 1980. The new regulations are aimed at the rapidly shifting new-media world and how advertisers are using bloggers and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to pitch their wares.

The F.T.C. said that beginning on Dec. 1, bloggers who review products must disclose any connection with advertisers, including, in most cases, the receipt of free products and whether or not they were paid in any way by advertisers, as occurs frequently. The new rules also take aim at celebrities, who will now need to disclose any ties to companies, should they promote products on a talk show or on Twitter.

Oddly, the Times never tells us what the rules that have been "deemed adequate" for "nearly three decades" are. The Times does suggest that the new rules simply extend to bloggers the regulations that have long governed newspapers and television shows:

For bloggers who review products, this means that the days of an unimpeded flow of giveaways may be over. More broadly, the move suggests that the government is intent on bringing to bear on the Internet the same sorts of regulations that have governed other forms of media, like television or print.

But that suggestion seems to be false. Tom Wark, author of the wine blog Fermentation, notes that the FTC rules that will require bloggers to disclose the receipt of comped products for review do not apply to "traditional" media:

Let me put this in plainer words. If a publisher sends me (a wine blogger) a copy of a new book about the wines of Bolivia and I review it positively I must disclose the book was given to me or face a fine of $11,000. If a reporter at the Wine Spectator (traditional media) receives a free copy of "The Wines of Bolivia" and reviews it positively, they need not disclose they received it free from the publisher.

As Wark notes, the FTC's double-standard seems to be based on the presumption that "traditional" reporters are more ethical than bloggers:

Should I be offended by the FTC's presumption that since I don't make a living off this blog I am more likely to deceive its readers by being on the take than the Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast or Wine & Spirits, which are moneymaking ventures?

I guess that depends on whether or not I believe that, in general, those with little or nothing to lose are more likely to engage in unethical or immoral actions and society (consumers) need to be protected from this sort of suspect class of people.

The fact is, I am offended by the assumptions built into the FTC's new guidelines on commercial endorsements. I'm offended because the FTC has chosen to codify this suspect assumption about the morals and ethics of people who write, but don't get paid to do so.

That assumption -- that bloggers lack the integrity of "traditional" journalists, who would never let the receipt of something of value affect their reporting -- naturally made me think of Howard Kurtz.

Howard Kurtz is one of the most famous reporters in America. He covers the media for the Washington Post, where he writes thousands of words a week. He also hosts a television show for CNN, one of the companies he covers for the Washington Post. And his reporting for the Washington Post has on at least one high-profile occasion given his CNN bosses a free pass.

And nobody in the traditional media seems to care. The Washington Post has remained silent about the fact that one of their star reporters is clearly letting his financial relationship with a company he covers affect his reporting. Nobody else has paid it much attention. It's as high-profile and blatant a conflict-of-interest as you could imagine, and the Post and the rest of the media look the other way.

And we're supposed to believe that bloggers need stricter ethical regulations? That a blogger writing favorably about a bottle of wine he gets for free is a bigger ethical problem than, for example, Howard Kurtz taking it easy on a company that pays him what I assume is tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? Please.

The Washington Post, The New York Times
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