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Free Speech
Should news outlets let bloggers running for office tout their campaigns?


Randy Hollenbeck
When Randy Hollenbeck launched his ultimately successful campaign for Cudahy alderman, he was already a known commodity to readers of the CudahyNOW.com website.

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 boss.

“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.”

Of 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.”

That also 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 communications.”

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 value.”

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 says.

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 rule.

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.

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