08/24/2010 11:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So, About This Whole 'Blogger Payola' Thing...

So, okay, let's talk about this "blogger payola" thing! Yesterday, The Daily Caller's Jonathan Strong published an article that asserted that there were widespread instances of political blogs "secretly feeding on cash from political campaigns." Strong gets an anonymous "Republican campaign operative" and an anonymous "GOP blogger-for-hire" to attest to the truth of this. We also have an example: Aaron Park, of the blog Red County, was on the take on behalf of Steve Poizner's failed bid for the GOP nomination in the California gubernatorial contest.

Oh, also? Some blogs make money through advertising. And, according to Strong, the "numbers don't add up" in terms of the ad revenue received, compared to unique viewers. And, on occasion, bloggers accept work as consultants, but if there's an example where such a deal wasn't disclosed (other than Aaron Park), Strong can't find it.

I'm not really sure how we go from a single bad apple, two anonymous sources, and a litany of perfectly banal new media practices to a scandal in which you have widespread blogger payola. Numerous conservative bloggers spent yesterday wondering why this supposed gravy train hadn't passed through their station. One of the more comprehensive takes on the matter was offered up by Ed Morrissey, who greets the matter with skepticism, but is nevertheless willing to take the matter seriously. If you're a young conservative blogger interested in hitting it big in party payola, let Morrissey explain why it's a bad idea:

Fortunately, blogs aren't regulated by the government, at least not yet, but it's stories like this that will give rise to demands for government to take action. The Federal Election Commission has repeatedly hinted at imposing onerous requirements on bloggers that will create legal burdens too expensive for most to meet. The hook will be undisclosed relationships with campaigns that turn blogs in effect into coordinated third-party efforts, and that could result in hefty fines for both the campaigns and the bloggers. But the larger impact will be to discourage political blogging at all, as the cost of defending oneself from the inevitable complaints will be so high (even for the majority who are innocent of any such connections) that people just won't bother to enter the market at all.

Even beyond that, though, it's simply dishonest. Plenty of bloggers get involved in election campaigns, and they make those connections clear by disclosing them on their blogs. Deliberately failing to do that -- and to market one's blog as a paid outlet for politicians -- puts people into Armstrong Williams territory. It saps credibility and damages the ability of the blogosphere to effect political change in the long run.

But, like I said, Morrissey seems a little bit skeptical of this story, and he's got two points worth amplifying. On the matter of seemingly inflated advertising rates, let's remember that "Election season usually means better ad rates for bloggers and other on-line enterprises (and TV, radio, and newspapers as well), as demand for space increases and prices bump upward."

Additionally, Morrissey notes that the article's "few data points" involve California races. If you've been paying attention to California's election season, you'd know that it started out with a trio of self-funders dumping millions of dollars into their campaigns: Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and the aforementioned Poizner. The sort of money Poizner was spending on his own behalf would be, in almost any other race in the country, an intimidating amount of scrilla. But Poizner was up against Whitman, who's dead set on eclipsing Michael Bloomberg as America's top self-funded candidate.

My take on the race is that Poizner was constantly behind the eight-ball, and desperate for any sort of advantage, and in Aaron Park, he found a friend he could buy. I'm not at all sure those same circumstances are going to be repeated. But who knows? All of Meg Whitman's money has to go somewhere, right?

In the end, I'm prepared to be wrong about this, but Strong's account really fails to convince me that some sort of widespread "payola" is going on. But then, I was pretty skeptical from the get-go, for reasons that Alex Pareene has succinctly articulated: "Jonathan Strong's Journolist stories demonstrated a propensity for exaggeration and occasional outright invention, so I take this with a grain of salt." Pretty much!

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