Monday, August 10, 2009

Dealing With The Devil

Jon Flack once said, "I'm not sure how to deal with these journalistic bloggers". Two years later, the struggle to define this murky relationship has moved to the campaign trail.

"We need to ask questions to bloggers to determine if they are writing as an activist or whether they are acting as a journalist so we can deal with them accordingly. We want to treat journalistic bloggers the exact same way we treat reporters" stated Republican candidate for Governor John Oxendine's Campaign Manager Tim Echols.

Echols was responding to last week's incident where teenage Lee County blogger Kyle Constable accused Oxendine campaign staff of "bullying" him.

On Friday, Constable published on his blog the details of a private conversation involving Oxendine consultants Gabe Winslow and Jeff Breedlove. Although he admits the conversation was off the record, Constable says the staffers were "rude" and "disrespectful" and he felt justified in breaking the veil of off the record because "it was something that needed to be published and knew that the people of Georgia were going to know the truth about what the Oxendine campaign does."

What followed was a blog storm which raged from the mountains to the coastal plains.

The easy story was a major gubenatorial campaign picking on a kid. The deeper rumbling was an onion peel of ethics in blogging and campaigning.

Blogs in the state of Georgia range from the openly partisan activists at Blog For Democracy to the more opaque Peach Pundit to fiercely non-partisan Drifting Through The Grift. Throw in professional journalist blogs like Fresh Loaf and Political Insider and you have a mish mash of purposes and standards possibly leaving readers confused about purposes and truths.

Constable found himself waste deep in the muck. He admits he was a "grassroots volunteer" for Oxendine but also expressed a desire to pursue journalism in the future. The conflict between these two very different trades erupted when he felt compelled to comment on his perception that a campaign tactic used by Oxendine was nothing more than a bait and switch effort to acquire email addresses. It was this posting which led to the now infamous conversation with Breedlove and Winslow.

Although the details of that conversation are lost to time and as is usually the case, both sides claim wildly differing perspectives, the result is not in dispute. Constable detailed the conversation and the Oxendine campaign found itself suddenly having to respond to stories that it was bullying teenagers. Not an activity any campaign desires.

Reporting an off the record conversation is the nuclear option for any journalist or any aspiring journalist. Every story is a deal with the devil. The journalist or the journalistic blogger is trying to get a story and every campaign is trying to get their story out. Both sides are being used, but both sides understand they are being used. There are rules to this game and as long as both sides stick to those rules, everyone's goals can be accomplished with fairness and at least a degree of honesty readers find acceptable.

Off the record conversations are critical tools in the deal and have the most defined rule set. Their primary purpose is to give a writer context around an event. Simply put, they are the check on whether a story is true or not. Although a campaign staffer will provide a gin-upped pablum of platitudes on the record, it is off the record where they will tell you if you're even on the right trail. Many a reporter has been saved by someone saying "I can't tell you officially, but you're getting this one wrong".

Although the professional standards may vary slightly, the rule regarding off the record conversations is simple - you don't report them. Most don't even hint about them. They are proximity bombs and the closer you get, the more likely they are to go off in your face. Professional journalists understand playing fast and loose in this arena can cost a career. For the non-professional bloggers, doors pried open a mere crack may slam shut relegating a voice to a lonely island of despair surrounded by an ocean of distrust.

Though his actions might be excused due to youth and inexperience, Constable is already tasting the consequences. Following a strong public rebuke from the Georgia Teen Republicans (Constable is Treasurer of the organization), today, he shut his blog down and although he will not admit to being pressured into this action, he does state, "
I know that by shutting down my blog not only can I continue to make a difference to the people around me where I'm planted, I may be able to re-unify the [Georgia Teen Republican] Executive Board so that we, as a whole, can really start to make a difference in the state."

Time will tell, if this episode will linger around the Oxendine campaign or their young former supporter, but all should note the eternal lesson - if you yank on the devil's tail too hard, you will get burned.


Icarus said...

I've got one major problem with the whole premise here, Grift.

Kyle is a minor. He can't enter a legal contract for about 3 more years. While this isn't a "legal" matter, the concept stands.

I can't understand, under any circumstance, how adult political operatives think it would be a good thing to have an "off the record" conversation with a minor.

Should never happen. Period.

griftdrift said...

I was wondering if someone would bring this up. It's an interesting point. I would point out here though that I use "off the record" as a convenient reference point. Is it possible that the Oxendine believed they were advising an young man interested in politics with no belief he would turn it into a controversy?

See Echols quote from Friday.

Icarus said...

Once you're venturing into "is it possible" land, you've already lost the battle.

"Is it possible" is the land of defense attorneys to juries, not a tool in the battle of public perception, which is what politics is.

This is why the onus is on the campaign. It's the adults who are responsible for keeping themselves and their candidates out of the news.

If you decide to have a conversation with a 15 year old, fine, your (bad) judgment call. If you decide it's off the record and expect it to stay that way, you've just set yourself and your candidate up for epic fail.

griftdrift said...

Oh I agree with that. And I'm going to publish one final note about this episode to clearly state it.

Sara said...

My feelings are similar to Icarus' but far more basic: I fail to understand why anyone cared what a 15 year old wrote on the internet. If everyone hadn't treated this kid like a quasi-journalist, and instead had appropriately recognized that he is just a 15 year old kid interested in politics, then none of this whole fruforal would have ever happened. Everything bad that flowed from the initial bad decision for the Oxendine campaign to talk to Kyle at all, I'd dare say, all goes back to that fundamental point that politics is not an arena meant for children.

Icarus said...


On your point you and I disagree. I was politically active at 15, and ran my high school newspaper (geek alert!). I'm in no way trying to dismiss him because of his age.

But adults have to understand that the rules are different when they're dealing with minors. And when you put yourself in a postion that leaves yourself looking volnerable to an abuse of power type charge, you're responsible when the situation blows up, not the kid.

griftdrift said...

I agree Ick. However Kyle did make a mistake and it would be impossible for me to write the piece without putting him at the center. See my final note for clarification.

Sara said...

I haven't said a word about Kyle's actions or culpability...just those of the adults who dealt with him. Because political interactions with teenagers are so fraught with danger for the adults, they should be avoided IMO. I'd certainly be hard pressed to imagine a situation where a campaign could benefit from engaging a teenage blogger like Kyle.

Doug said...

I want to make a point that, while tangential to the main topic, has to be made.

The fact that a front-runner for the Georgia's top political job has someone who trolls the internet looking for dissent on a 15-year-old's blog shows that there is just too much money in poltics, and too many who take "politics" too seriously.

Honestly, what damage is this kid's blog going to do to John Oxendine? The kid lives in Southwest Georgia and probably has a blog readership consisting of his mother, siblings, and a few classmates. Why have a staffer dedicated to snuffing out such a small-time dissenting voice?

And on top of that, Oxendine's campaign manager took the time to speak to the kid on the phone. And then he confronted him once the "off-the-record" conversation went public. The seriousness in which career political "operatives" take their job is ridiculous, and it's one reason why normal people tend to tune out politics.