One Small Step for the ‘Buffalo Beast,’ One Step Backward for Blogs

Last week, the independently owned Buffalo Beast, a small, progressive magazine, vaulted into the national conversation by getting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to open up about his union-busting efforts. The past week has been a victory lap for publication, garnering more attention than ever before from mainstream news sources like the Huffington Post, Fox News, and even the nightly news. In fact, their website crashed due to the influx of visitors—an independent newspaper’s dream.

There’s only one problem: none of the Beast’s reporting was ethical.

The Beast got through to Walker by allowing one of its editors, Ian Murphy, to call the governor’s office as David Koch, a billionaire donor to the GOP. Incredibly, none of Walker’s aides vetted Murphy well enough to realize that the real Koch wasn’t on the other end of the line, allowing Murphy to have a lengthy, revealing conversation with the governor. During their chat, Walker confided to “Koch” that he considered planting “trouble-makers” among the protesters and bragged that he had a baseball bat ready in his office for implied union-bashing. Here’s the conversation:

As salacious as it sounds, none of Walker’s words should have seen the light of day (and wouldn’t have if the Beast had used even a modicum of editorial discretion). As the Society of Professional Journalists points out, Murphy’s report was “underhanded and unethical.” Poynter’s Jim Romenesko agrees, writing:

Though the Buffalo Beast purports to be an alternative news site with heavily slanted views that are neither fair nor objective, the fact remains that this interview was underhanded and unethical. Credible news organizations should be cautious about how they report this already widely reported story, and must realize that the information was obtained in a grossly inappropriate manner according to longstanding tenets of journalism.

While Romenesko is too harsh on the Beast’s liberal viewpoint—he scoffs at it as “unfair”—he has this issue absolutely right. No publication, no matter the medium, can willfully deceive its sources, then turn around and print what they hear.

Murphy would likely argue that exposing Walker’s angry, anti-union rhetoric and ties to corporate power justifies any ethical lines he crossed in getting the story. There’s some merit to that. But by running with an ethically questionable story, Murphy jeopardized not only the Beast’s reputation, but that of independent outlets nationwide—you know, the ones doing actual, substantial reporting.

Like it or not, most Americans can’t tell Talking Points Memo and the Buffalo Beast apart. All they know is that they’re both “alternative” sources online—blogs, basically. People who hear about Murphy’s dishonest interview—and don’t check the sites providing hard-hitting coverage—could think that all bloggers behave so unethically. In that way, the story did more harm than good. (Meanwhile, skewed corporate media with an ax to grind against unions goes unquestioned.)

And there’s real danger in that, as both Media Matters and TPM have exposed just how poor mainstream coverage of the Wisconsin protests has been.

When independent sites neglect proper journalistic standards, it just feeds the bad rap against alternative media and makes it easier for people to lump all alternative sites as “blogs” and ignore them.

Independent reporting can effect real change, but bloggers—including us here at the GMP—need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than Murphy did.

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About Sam McCann

Sam McCann is a junior journalism major at Ithaca College who just discovered a field that pays even less than reporting: English. He promptly added it to his course load and now accepts donations. Email him here.

Comments

  1. This is a disgusting breach of journalistic ethics. It doesn’t matter what Walker said in that interview. There are rules and as a journalist, you have to live by those rules. Especially in this day and age when blogs masquerade as actual news outlets. You’re right, people can’t tell the difference. And unfortunately, the majority of them won’t care about The Beast’s disgusting lack of integrity. But they should.

    I know this won’t be popular, but as a “mainstream media” member I think it’s unbelievably harmful that these “news sites” (which are really just opinion pieces sprinkled with a tiny bit of actual reporting) are being relied upon as if they are actual news gathering organizations. Real journalists are trained in their craft. They take this stuff seriously. They vet sources and information, and won’t print anything until it’s verified. These bloggers throw stuff at the wall and hope something sticks. If it does they take all the credit. If they’re wrong or can’t prove what they’re writing is true, so what? They’re not held accountable anyways.

    I see it everyday and it makes my blood boil. And while I hope it stops, I doubt it’s going to because the public would actually have to care where their news comes from.

  2. SonofMog says:

    With idiots like you running things, it’s a cinch we’ll never have to hear the truth about our leaders. Huzzah!

  3. Sam McCann says:

    Daddy Files, I disagree with you about blogs. The point I was hoping to make in my post is that blogs should be considered alongside mainstream media as valid sources of information (moreso, really, because they’re typically not beholden to corporate interest). However, when some bloggers behave irresponsibly, like Murphy and the Buffalo Beast did in this instance, it provokes some people to write off all blogs as something without merit. I hope that people visit the sites that do the thorough, provocative reporting that I find little of in the mainstream media, “blogs” like Talking Points Memo, Democracy Now!, Glenn Greenwald’s column in Salon, etc, but they’re less likely to if other blogs act unethically. Basically, I worry Murphy jeopardized the integrity of not just his site, but other sites outside the mainstream. Would Amy Goodman have pretended to be a billionaire just to get access to Walker? Of course not, because it’s unethical. To write her and others off because of something the Buffalo Beast did is a travesty.

  4. So you think the average American is more concerned about the journalistic approach of a blogger than they are about the fact a millionaire (non-resident of WI) can just call up and have a 20 minute with the governor? I think most American’s are more concerned about the influence the Koch’s have throughout our political landscape and I hope most are more concerned about the executive decision maker of a state considering the planting of trouble-makers into the protests than the scruples of a blogger. Not only did Walker consider taking that action, but he only changed his mind because he felt the results might not work in his favor… not because it was ethically wrong or because it might endanger protestors and law enforcement.
    I find it quite disingenuous for you, the society of professional journalists and Jim Romenesko to call out these tactics, while remaining silent about James O’Keefe and LiveAction which have used similar tactics in their exposes of ACORN and Planned Parenthood and the planned seduction of CNN reporter Abbie Bourdeau. At least Ian Murphy gave us the full conversation without editing it to make it sound worse than it was. We call all agree that the approaches of Murphy and O’Keefe are unsavory, but there is no “fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine” in journalism and the information gleaned through these tactics is certainly admissible in the court of public opinion. If Walker wants to go after Ian Murphy legally for invasion of privacy and secretly taping a phone conversation… more power to him… but it doesn’t absolve his own actions.
    Talking and acting appropriately is not something “Good Men” should strive to do only when people are watching or listening… we should aim for the goal of being upstanding men all of the time and if Walker was a stand-up guy he would never have considered the actions he did and he would not humor the likes of the fake David Koch on the phone just because he thought it was a private call.

    • @Sam: I’m not saying there aren’t any good blogs out there. There are. And if people want to espouse their opinions on their own sites, more power to them. There’s a place for that. But what bothers me are sites that market themselves as news sites, when they’re clearly giving opinion. And I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that “beholden to corporate interest” stuff. Does it ever happen? Probably. But my newspaper is owned by News Corp., and I have to listen to these conspiracy theory nutcases tell me we write our stories based on Rupert Murdoch’s opinion. It’s ridiculous and it’s not true. Moreover, people are usually referring to the editorial slant of a newspaper, and not the news reporting. But most don’t know the difference. Bottom line is bloggers routinely throw their opinion in their stories, which is unacceptable if they’re trying to be a legitimate news outlet. The good journalists report the facts without taking a side.

      @DOTR: Walker’s admissions are startling and upsetting. I don’t condone them in any way. And the fact that his staff allowed this to happen…yikes. But that still doesn’t excuse The Beast’s methods. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had “off the record” information for a story that I was DYING to use but couldn’t. And I couldn’t do it because those people told me something in confidence not meant for publication. And if we don’t honor that, or if we get the information like The Beast did, we’re just as despicable as the people we’re reporting on.

  5. I agree DF… my comment was directed more at the Sam than you. It all deserves discussion and it’s a valid point to make regarding journalistic integrity, but its not like this is the first time a blogger soiled the name of journalists and/or other bloggers and it’s certainly not the worst case of unsavory journalistic methods so I find it odd the Good Men project would focus on the misdeeds of Murphy (with seemingly little or no problem with Live Action/O’Keefe) without coming out strongly against Walker.
    I guess at the end of the day… I like the Good Men Project for their non-political takes on ethics, morality and for their highlighting of issues in a way that gives us pause to think about issues for what they are without the spin toward any political end… maybe Sam didn’t intend any spin at all and I like to hope not. However, to address this topic as if Murphy is the main problem seems strange to me. Walker is no victim here… politician’s ought to know their speech and emails should always pass the “NY Times test”… if you wouldn’t want it on the front page… don’t say it and don’t write it.

    • DOTR: OK, I see where you’re coming from. And I agree on all counts, especially your last point. I guess if there’s a silver lining here it’ll be that politicians think a little harder about what they do and say.

      Sam: You’re right in that there bloggers who practice real journalism. I applaud that whole-heartedly and believe it helps create an informed citizenry. But where we’ll have to agree to disagree is the issue of objectivity. Having an opinion is unavoidable. But what is TOTALLY avoidable (not to mention required) is not letting that opinion surface in the story. I disagree about page placement because (usually) a group of editors make that decision based on what readers want to see. Reasonable minds will (and routinely do) disagree, but whether a story goes out front or inside largely depends on its appeal to readers.

      I think just accepting someone’s admitted slant is a cop-out. It’s like saying “I’m being transparently biased.” Just because they’re admitting a deficiency out in the open doesn’t change that fact that they’re writing to persuade, not always to educate and inform. Why is it so difficult to put personal opinions aside and just report the facts? I’m very opinionated on a host of subjects, but it would be a personal failure of the highest order if I ever let my opinion seep into a story.

  6. Sam McCann says:

    DOTR, you’re absolutely right about Walker. However, he’s spent the past week getting justifiably crucified in the press…I don’t much want to write another piece piling on, when it’s been so well covered. I don’t think I portrayed him as the victim, and I’m sorry it came across that way to you His words are, like you said, admissible in the court of public opinion, and his is the chief wrong in this instance. But Murphy’s tactics hasn’t gotten much play, and I think they deserve it. I don’t think it’s disingenuous of me to say that, either, because I likewise condemn Breitbart, O’Keefe, etc. He acted immorally in this instance, and I worry about the repercussions of that immorality in other alternative web publications. That’s the point of the article, not to absolve Walker of any of his guilt.

    As for DF’s point, I think there are plenty of “good” journalists who do take sides. I don’t really prize objectivity above all else, because I think it’s unavoidable– “objective” reporting’s bias emerges in story selection, quote usage, page placement, etc.. I’d much prefer transparency, so the reader at least knows what he or she is getting. Plus, there are plenty of bloggers who do the sort of reporting you champion, the kind that actually strikes at the heart of the issue. That’s why I worry that bloggers using questionable tactics can damage the credibility of substantial, ethical blogs.

  7. Thanks for discussion guys… I understand what you are both saying and think we are all actually pretty close to being on the same page. Have a good one.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] We’ve written before that the impersonation was ethically questionable from a journalistic standpoint, but the motive behind it—a desire to deconstruct corporate influence in American politics—is vital to democracy. Murphy’s running his campaign around just that ideal, promising to represent the working class, a promise he believes that his wealthy opponents can’t match. He insists they’ll only further the demise of the American political system instigated by corporate greed. [...]

  2. [...] Koch is the other half of the disgustingly rich Koch brothers—David, you may remember, was the subject of a prank call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker at the height of the Madison protests. The bad publicity [...]

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