Shouldn’t journalistic ethics apply to bloggers? Specifically, shouldn’t bloggers refuse to accept perks from companies, organizations, and power brokers they write about? I’m a newbie in the blogging world, but I believe that any blogger who seeks credibility and independence must accept this standard, even if you were to start a blog on WordPress and believe yourself to not rack up much traffic in the foreseeable future.
The issue came up specifically when I attended the First International Jewish Bloggers Convention last Wednesday here in Jerusalem. The convention was organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh, which promotes aliya from Western countries. I’m all in favor of aliya, and Nefesh B’Nefesh does fine work, even if its close association with Binyamin Netanyahu—the convention’s keynote speaker—and other figures on the Israeli right is not to my taste.
To kick off the convention, Nefesh B’Nefesh flew a number of Israel-based Jewish bloggers to the U.S. so that they could accompany a planeload of new immigrants on their move to their new country. At least some of the bloggers were given business class seats. They were also given complete freedom to write whatever they wished about what they saw and heard—it could hardly have been otherwise given the nature of the blog medium.
So what’s the problem? If Nefesh B’Nefesh is a laudable outfit, and if it gave the beneficiaries of its largesse complete freedom, what could be wrong?
Well, think of a precisely parallel situation. Say a big pharma company throws a lavish bash for delegates to this week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver. The delegates include members of congress and political functionaries who have the ears of decision makers. The company does fine work—it spends huge amounts of money pursuing cancer remedies and maybe makes that migraine pill you couldn’t live without. And it assures all the guests at its party that it is simply expressing its gratitude to the Democratic party, and is in no way seeking to influence the votes of members of congress or the actions of other decision-makers.
As a matter of fact, my sister Nancy Watzman is tracking such bashes this week for the Sunlight Foundation at her Party Time blog. It’s a tough assignment, having to estimate the cost of all those ice sculptures and the legality of finger foods at the more than 400 parties scheduled for the two major party conventions, but Nancy is determined to show how good innocent fun had lobbyists and politicians can have a deleterious influence on democracy. I think we’d all agree with Nancy when she says, as she does on this NPR podcast, that large sums of money simply cannot be dispensed so innocently. “When [you, a congressman] go back to Washington, would you be more likely to answer a phone call from me or would you be more likely to answer the phone call from the lobbyist you ate some shrimp with at one of these parties?” she asks.
Exactly. I have no reason to believe that Nefesh B’Nefesh, its officers, and its employees are anything but dedicated and hardworking idealists. But even philanthropic organizations have interests—they must compete for funding and donors, must present an image to the public, and must curry favor with politicians. And we know that money corrupts—do we lack instances of scandals in charities?
A blogger who received a free business-class round-trip plane ticket from Nefesh B’Nefesh would inevitably think twice about checking out a rumor of malfeasance in the organization—or even about writing that some of the olim in its care felt they hadn’t been treated properly. Even if there were no such rumors or complaints to be heard, the fact that the bloggers accepted this perk automatically reduces their credibility to zero in writing about the organization and its activities.
True, bloggers do not have news organizations behind them to pick up the cost of travel and other expenses. Adhering to the standards I advocate here would mean that they could not participate in one of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s flights at all.
But there are other ways of covering this story. For example, bloggers interested in aliya could drive or take a cab to Ben-Gurion airport to meet the new arrivals, or contact them thereafter.
Nefesh B’Nefesh is to be congratulated for organizing the Jewish Bloggers Convention—it was a welcome opportunity for me to meet other bloggers. And I have no reason to believe that any of the bloggers who accepted its plane tickets are anything but honest and dedicated writers. But my advice is: Nefesh B’Nefesh—don’t tempt bloggers with plane tickets next time. And bloggers—if they offer you one, politely but firmly turn it down.