Bradley Smith says that the freewheeling days of political blogging and online punditry are over. In just a few months, he warns, bloggers and news organizations could risk the wrath of the federal government if they improperly link to a campaign's Web site. Even forwarding a political candidate's press release to a mailing list, depending on the details, could be punished by fines. Smith should know. He's one of the six commissioners at the Federal Election Commission, which is beginning the perilous process of extending a controversial 2002 campaign finance law to the Internet. In 2002, the FEC exempted the Internet by a 4-2 vote, but U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly last fall overturned that decision. "The commission's exclusion of Internet communications from the coordinated communications regulation severely undermines" the campaign finance law's purposes, Kollar-Kotelly wrote.
The heart of the matter: should bloggers be afforded the press exemption?
Interesting question. The press get an exemption because they are deemed to serve the public interest and are supposed to swear off advocacy speech except in clearly marked editorial zones, although it's a voluntary code and not a federal regulation.
Deep question, and I'm pressed for time. Let me just add my pissy little objection: That what we're talking about here is not blogging per se but "coordinated political activity." You know, like the 527 organizations that the campaigns swear up and down are not, techically speaking, blasting out propaganda on their behalf, but rather exercising their freedom of speech. And the noise machine.
The vast "dark blogosphere" has more to do with swapping recipes, adulating rock stars, solving programming problems, publishing awkward poetry and baby pictures, and voicing opinions about stuff we don't know a lot about but are trying to learn because it interests us. It's the "blogging industry" that's giving us a bad name by selling out to the DYI FOX News brigade because they drive traffic.
On the other hand, this regulation seems tantamount to government regulation of journalism. It's quite possible for someone to practice honest journalism on a blog, after all. The problem is that getting press credentials now depends on working for an established news organization. Down in Brazil, the opposition slammed the current government for proposing just this: an independent credentialing board to say who is a journalist and who isn't, and to punish ethical violations, as doctors and lawyers do.
Why not a voluntary campaign for bloggers who agree to follow some basic code of journalistic ethics? Most of us do it already, even if the only thing we tell the truth and nothing but the truth about is what goes on in our garden or the doings of our kids. That's journalism, too, I think.