Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Best Of The Drifts - Constablegate: The Analysis

Originally published 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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What an appropriate analogy.