New State Regulations Shed Little Light On Political Blogosphere

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While blogs have no doubt become a permanent part of the political fray, figuring out how to regulate them — or even whether to regulate them — within the context of campaign finance law has proved quite difficult.

For years, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission has required disclosure of campaign committee payments to bloggers. And late last year it wrote new regulations that require greater disclosure for campaigns that pay bloggers to write favorably or against candidates or ballot measures.

The new rules, which took effect last year, require additional details, such as the website or URL where the writers have their content published and the identity of the “individual providing the content.”

But they don’t address the methods by which bloggers were already suspected of skirting the rules, such as inflated payments for ads and receiving compensation from private groups other than campaign committees.

One media expert, as well as bloggers, say that the new regulations are full of loopholes, are largely unenforceable and will do little to clear the air.

“It sounds to me like the whole thing is a loophole,” said Marc Cooper, a media professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Bloggers have an array options at their disposal if they want to conceal their financial supporters, said Cooper and other experts.

One challenge the FPPC has in policing the blogosphere is simple noncompliance. Campaign consultants, for example, are required to disclose payments to bloggers who are acting as subconsultants. But there is little motivation for doing so, because the chances of being caught are slim.

Bloggers can also get around the intent of the regulations by charging high premiums to run campaign ads with the unwritten understanding that they are also being paid to slant their content a certain way, according to the experts.

Finally, the new rules only address committees that already must file statements disclosing their contributors and expenditures. The regulations don’t mandate other entities such as nonprofits and private businesses to disclose whether they are paying for blog content.

That last loophole is the one that blogger Aaron F. Park said he specifically raised when he met with FPPC officials.

“Let’s say Joe, a rich business owner, says I want to get some information out there. … They approach a blogger saying, ‘I‘ve got a big fat file or links to articles I want you to post.’ He pays the blogger directly. You don’t have to disclose that, because [the blogger’s] not getting paid by the campaign,” Park said.

The FPPC’s new rules don’t address Park’s point. The new rules were “intended to be limited to [committees] that are already reporting,” FPPC spokesman Jay Wirenga wrote in an email.

Park knows how the business of secret payments for blogging works. He was booted off the now-defunct Red County blog for taking payments from the 2010 “Steve Poizner for Governor” campaign without disclosing them publicly.

Later it was revealed that Red County had been receiving tens of thousands of dollars for ads from Poizner’s opponent in the race, the Meg Whitman campaign. Red County’s defenders say the difference is their payments were disclosed.

Finger-Pointing but No Proof

Ask any political blogger in Orange County about allegations that they are paid by special interests to blog and just about all will respond with vigorous denials and then almost immediately accuse competing voices of doing just that.

Dan Chmielewski, managing editor at the Liberal OC blog, said that Art Pedroza is likely being paid to blog by Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido’s campaign.

“If Miguel Pulido needs somebody to explain something, he goes to Art for it,” Chmielewski said, noting that Pulido often doesn’t return phone calls from journalists.

Pedroza refuted that and said the Liberal OC, with which he had a protracted legal battle, “spreads lies.”

Pedroza and Save Anaheim blogger Jason Young said that Anaheim Blog writer Matt Cunningham, who supports Anaheim’s City Council majority, is being paid for his work.

Park said Jon Fleischman, who publishes the Flash Report, is being paid to blog through his ads and also because Fleischman is a campaign consultant.

Proving any of these allegations, however, is next to impossible given the loopholes.

For example, Pedroza acknowledged being paid in both 2010 and 2012 to work on the Pulido campaign’s website and social media.

Yet Pedroza — whose writings were anti-Pulido until a few years ago, when he suddenly became pro-Pulido — said he has never been paid to blog and claims to have been unaware of the new disclosure rules.

Cunningham has been a paid public relations consultant for the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, and his writings often echo the chamber’s position on the most contentious political issues in the city, including elections by districts and corporate subsidies.

A chamber website even described his blog as the “Anaheim Chamber of Commerce blog.”

But after a post seen as mocking mourning rituals of young Latino men killed in police shootings went viral, both the chamber and Cunningham claimed that the blogger wasn’t being paid to blog. The chamber website reference was changed after a reporter asked about it.

Fleischman also said that he isn’t paid for his content and that his ad prices aren’t inflated. He said he rarely writes about candidates he works for, and when he does, he discloses that in his posts.

“Generally as a practice, I do some campaigns, and when I do, I try not to blog about them,” he said.

Fleischman disclosed the price for his basic wall ads — $350 — on his website but not for his premium and larger ads. He said he would send a reporter his ad rate sheet, but never did.

Cooper said it’s easy for Fleishman to make claims when he doesn’t have disclosure requirements.

“They buy ads, but ‘we have a firewall between the advertising and the editorial department’ … ha-ha-ha,” Cooper said sarcastically.

“I don’t see any way how [the new regulation] is going to be effectively implemented,” he said.

Said Park regarding Cunningham’s claim that he receives payments from the Chamber but not to blog: “That would be about as ridiculous as me saying my 17 years in the insurance business has no influence on my opposition to Obamacare. And you can quote me on that one, dude.”

Why Regulate What Can’t Be Controlled?

Some of the bloggers say the regulations are worthless and only generate more paperwork.

“I feel largely that the regulation is a hammer looking for a nail and isn’t really necessary,” Fleischman said.

Cunningham argued that the new rules are ineffective, and he questions whether they might stifle online debate, because bloggers could be frightened by the threat of FPPC complaints.

“Is whatever good they’re trying to achieve going to outweigh the benefit of free political discourse?” Cunningham said.

For Cooper, there isn’t a problem to be fixed in the first place. He said the entire debate is a distraction from the vast “legalized corruption” — the hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions that flow during campaign seasons — that finances television and radio ads, the kind of mainstream media that reaches far more voters than blogs do.

And Cooper argued that most readers understand the political agenda of the publication or article they are reading. He said disclosure of payments to blogs then becomes a moot issue.

“If Joe Blogger is or is not being paid by X candidate directly or indirectly to support him but is supporting him, I’m not sure that disclosure is going to make much difference,” Cooper said. “I don’t think people are that stupid. I think people know what they’re reading, for the most part.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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