On blogger ethics and commenter ethics

On Tuesday, the Des Moines Register reported that the Federal Elections Commission unanimously found “no reason to believe” that Gordon Fischer broke the law in the way his blog Iowa True Blue supported Barack Obama for president.

A supporter of Hillary Clinton had filed the FEC complaint, saying

the blog “ceased being just another political blog” and became a “direct arm” of the Obama campaign after Fischer endorsed Obama. He said the blog included information that was similar to that being disseminated by the Obama campaign.

Tofte said that he also saw a tab labeled “donate” at the Web site and asked Fischer via the Web site why a donation would not have to be disclosed as a donation to the Obama campaign. When he returned to the site later Tofte said he found the “donate” tab no longer existed, and he charged that Fischer changed the Web site and attempted to cover up donations.

In its analysis, the FEC staff said Fischer denied any coordination existed between him and the Obama campaign and said that anything he wrote on the blog was an exercise of his right to free speech. Fischer also denied soliciting donations on the blog.

The staff agreed. “There is no information to suggest that the Obama Committee is coordinating with the Fischer Web site as to its contents,” the FEC analysis said, and added there was no information to suggest the donation tab ever existed.

It’s the right ruling. Political blogging itself is not considered a campaign contribution by the FEC. Many bloggers, including myself, receive press releases and other occasional communications from political campaigns.

It might not be very interesting to read a blog that consists primarily of press releases and talking points, but that certainly falls under the free speech rights of any blogger, in my opinion.

I do not recall whether I ever saw a “donate” button on Fischer’s blog. It’s not possible to evaluate how much his writing changed after he endorsed Obama in September, because in January he reported on his blog that all of his past posts had been deleted. I know that some of his posts during the spring made a lot of Clinton supporters angry, but it’s no FEC violation to be a strong advocate for your candidate.

I have and will continue to support various Democratic candidates on this blog. However, no campaign ever has or will tell me what to write, what to write about or when to write it. If I feel a press release is newsworthy, I write it up. If not, I don’t bother. I don’t submit any material to anyone prior to publication either.

I want to say a few words about blog commenters, because last Sunday, Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu got me thinking about the subject with a long piece called Stop spewing online venom. She talked with a few of the “trolls” who enjoy offending other people at the Register’s website and placed most of the blame for this phenomenon on the Register’s tolerance for anonymity. The newspaper won’t print anonymous guest columns or letters to the editor, but it does allow anonymous comments on its website, and most of the inflammatory material is posted by commenters who don’t use their real names.

The Register’s home-page editor, Yvonne Beasley, spends much of her day taking down posts with “moron,” “retard” and “white trash” in them. “I’ve taken down horrible, perverted things about Shawn Johnson,” she said.

She figures about a dozen people on the Register’s Web site fit the description of trollers, including missdorothy. And Beasley says her communications with counterparts at other papers indicate most handle them just like the Register does.

The problem for the Register is that with 2,000 or so comments posted every day, it’s impossible for one editor to delete all that deserve to be deleted.

Al Tompkins, a professor of ethics and online journalism at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, has a problem with newspapers allowing anonymous posts because newspapers are supposed to filter truth and accuracy from fiction and not publish things that are untrue or injurious to others. When names are not used, he said, “people will take advantage of others, bullying, and saying and doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

Nor does he see it as a free-speech issue to allow that.

“If you can’t afford to do it right,” he says, “don’t do it.”

[Register editor Carolyn] Washburn says a feature allows readers to hide online comments. She also encourages use of the “report abuse” tool to steer conversations in a more constructive direction.

Basu thinks the Register should  

gradually start requiring people to provide their names, and begin matching those to e-mail addresses. It’s a safe bet many would stop lobbing missiles in stealth and start being more civil, and the conversations would improve.

Not surprisingly, since I choose to blog as “desmoinesdem,” I disagree with Basu regarding anonymous comments. There are many valid reasons for someone to prefer to use a screen name online.  I would never require Bleeding Heartland users to reveal their real names.

However, I have asked that each person who writes here choose one username for Bleeding Heartland and stick to that. In other words, no “sock puppets” created to lend support for your own position.

While no one has to reveal any personal details here, I ask people not to make false statements about themselves either. You’re free to never mention your gender, age or location at Bleeding Heartland, but if you say you are a thirty-something mom of two in Windsor Heights, you should be a thirty-something mom of two in Windsor Heights.

Bleeding Heartland has fortunately not attracted many trolls. Users can rate comments, and comments can be hidden if they receive too many “zero” ratings.

I am reposting some guidelines for rating other people’s comments at Bleeding Heartland:

You don’t have to rate comments (my personal style is to be sparing in handing out ratings), but if you do, you can give five possible ratings.

“4” is for excellent. That means the comment has valuable insight, original information or analysis, and makes a strong contribution to dialogue at Bleeding Heartland.

“3” is for good. You might use this if you largely agree with someone’s comment, but not with every point he or she makes.

“2” is for marginal. You might use this if you strongly disagree with the content of someone’s comment. Also, a 2 rating could be a “shot across the bow” to warn someone that the line of argument in the comment didn’t do much to advance dialogue here, or comes close to crossing a line.

“1” is for unproductive. If you not only strongly disagree with a comment, but feel that it detracts from the atmosphere here (for instance, because it is disrespectful or contains ad hominem attacks), you might give it a 1.

“0” is for troll. If more than one user gives a comment a zero, it will be hidden so that some Bleeding Heartland readers cannot see it.

Never use a zero rating to express disagreement with the argument someone is making. That is ratings abuse, and if you do it repeatedly, Bleeding Heartland administrators will either take away your ability to rate comments or potentially ban you from posting here.

A zero rating should be reserved for extreme circumstances, when the comment deserves to be hidden. For instance, if someone is impersonating someone else by choosing a different real person’s name as a screen name (for instance, if I signed up as “Leonard Boswell” and posted ridiculous comments pretending to come from him).

Comments that use racist or otherwise bigoted language also would merit a zero.

Trying to expose the real names of Bleeding Heartland users who choose to write under screen names will not be tolerated either.

Slanderous, ad hominem attacks could get a zero rating too, but be careful not to accuse other posters of slander just because you disagree with their point of view or interpretation of events.

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