Should news outlets let bloggers running for office tout their campaigns?
When Randy Hollenbeck launched his ultimately successful campaign for Cudahy alderman, he was already a known
commodity to readers of the CudahyNOW.com
Hollenbeck blogs at the local news
portal, one of some two dozen suburban Milwaukee NOW sites operated by the Community Newspapers unit of Journal
Communications. He labels himself “an Ultra-Conservative, Alpha-Male, True
Authentic Leader, Type ‘C’ Personality,” – and he wasn’t shy about using his
blog to promote his aldermanic campaign, either. And he did it with the full
knowledge of, and no objection from, NOW’s
“Our policy on all bloggers is the same,” says NOW Editor-in-Chief Scott Peterson. “Anyone who follows our posted guidelines and wants
to post regularly is welcome to be a blogger. The more the merrier.”
Hollenbeck has blogged for NOW’s Cudahy, South Milwaukee and St Francis sites since early
2008. When he decided to run for alderman in this year’s election, he tells me,
he first cleared it with NOW’s online
editor before he began posting campaign commentary on his blog.
Hollenbeck says in an email that his
blogging history was generally an asset to his campaign. “It allowed me to show
people that I am not moving in one direction or the other to pander for votes.
. . . I say what I do and do what I say.”
course, that worked the other way, too. “My blog also has hurt me,” he says –
because having aired criticisms of some Cudahy political leaders in the past,
“I had people telling me they were going to vote against me because of my
stances on those people rather that telling me they were going to vote in favor
of my opponent. That is a chance you take when you let people know how
you feel and attach your name to something.”
Others, though, weren’t so happy – including Hollenbeck’s opponent
in the race, himself a political blogger.
Zach Wisniewski, the ringmaster for the collectively produced Blogging Blue, came up 10 votes short in
the race. During the campaign he didn’t make a big issue of Hollenbeck’s use of
the blog as a campaign tool, but others did.
Dan Cody, active in the local Democratic party, a long-time blogger on politics and policy topics,
and sometimes a political candidate, criticized NOW’s laissez-faire approach on his own blog during the campaign.
“There’s a difference between a
casual citizen speaking about local issues and someone running for office using
a NOW site to run a campaign from,”
Cody, who is president of The Park People of Milwaukee County, tells me. “Even
though it can be done fairly inexpensively, it still costs money for a campaign
to develop and host a website. What NOW is
doing is basically giving an ‘in kind’ campaign contribution by allowing
campaigns to use its site for free instead of having to pay for one.”
Cody, who has run unsuccessfully
for the Milwaukee County Board, says he never used his blog as part of his
campaigning. Wisniewski said he, too, made a conscious decision not to use his blog
for campaign messaging. “I wanted my campaign to be separate and distinct from Blogging Blue, especially considering
I’m not the only contributor,” he says.
Hollenbeck sees it all quite differently. “The NOW blogs
are free, open to anyone. I don’t get paid or any compensation whatsoever. I am
not using my job to campaign.” The accessibility of NOW blogs to all comers “is the very definition of fair.”
makes him very different from, say, a staff columnist for the paper – which can
select which readers’ opposing letters to print and which not to, he points out.
The blogger’s critics can comment in real time on the NOW site or even get blogs
of their own.
“We provide the community blogs as a community service,”
says NOW editor Peterson. The writers
aren’t paid and the content is not edited in advance. “So if someone running
for office wanted to start a blog and an opponent wanted to do the same thing,
we would gladly start blogs for both of them.”
Blog posts and reader comments, he says, are reviewed only
if there’s a complaint, and are taken down if they violate posted guidelines.
But, Peterson adds, “in general, we give commenters and posters a wide berth.”
NOW isn’t alone in its approach. “Our policy at Patch is pretty simple: Anyone can blog
about anything on our sites,” says Mark Maley,
the Milwaukee regional editor for Patch.com.
“We actually encourage political candidates to use Patch as a way to get their
message out to the public – and we’ve had Tammy Baldwin, Tommy Thompson, Eric
Hovde and others blog for us while they were running.”
Blogging, Maley says, “provides anyone with a platform to
get an unfiltered message out to a wide audience.” When rival candidates
complain it’s not fair to give other candidates “free” blog space, he adds,
“The answer I give them is pretty simple: ‘Why don't you go ahead and start
your own blog?’” He took the same approach when he was at NOW, he notes. (Indeed, Hollenbeck credits Maley with recruiting
him to blog for NOW five years ago.)
But Wisniewski says he would not have wanted to put his own
blog up on NOW just to counter
Hollenbeck’s. “I didn’t think it was appropriate to intermingle my campaign
with a media outlet,” he says. “Media should be reporting about campaigns and
candidates, not offering them an unfettered outlet for their campaign
Like Cody, Wisniewski wonders whether “the use of NOW’s resources could be considered a
campaign contribution.” Considering the cost of servers and other
infrastructure that the blog requires, he adds: “Candidates shouldn’t get
something of value for free during a campaign, and a spot to blog on NOW would seem to me to have some
And he says he was surprised
Hollenbeck didn’t have to post on his NOW
blog the sort of sponsorship disclaimer – as in, “Paid for by the campaign of…”
– that most campaign literature requires.
But a blog isn’t like most
campaign literature. I asked Racine attorney Rebecca Mason, whose clients include political candidates, whether NOW or Hollenbeck—or, similarly, Patch—would be required to run an
attribution or funding disclaimer for campaign-related blog posts.
“The short answer is, no,” she
The key is that the websites
provide broad access, she says. She
likens the situation to an organization or business that might make a meeting
room available to a wide range of potential users in the community, including
politicians. If the room’s owner doesn’t play favorites in whom it lets use the
space, “it’s not considered an in-kind contribution.”
So don’t expect the practice to go away. Cody doesn’t.
“I think Patch and
NOW are allowing this for the simple
reason that it drives traffic to their websites, which allows them to serve
more advertisements,” he says. “They welcome content and local controversy, and
people like Hollenbeck provided both in spades.”
A footnote, though: Very different rules apply to radio, where the
Federal Communications Commission requires “equal time” for political speech.
That’s still the law, by the way, even though the fairness doctrine with which the equal time rule is sometimes
conflated no longer exists.
Mason represented Democratic
state representative candidate Mandy
Wright last year in her campaign for an open Assembly seat. Wright ran
against conservative radio talk show host
Pat Snyder, and negotiated five
hours of free airtime on Snyder’s station, WSAU, on the grounds that his
show had given him an unfair advantage in the race and violated the equal time
Snyder stepped down from his
morning show because of the campaign – and the rule – but whatever advantage he
had gotten from it wasn’t enough.
He lost to Wright by 900
votes—and later mused that his talk radio job might have cost him the race.
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Train depot photo from Cudahy Historical Society.