What is it with political blogs and transparency? Based on recent research and evidence, one would think the bloggers behind Oklahoma’s political factions were part of some shadow conspiracy to disseminate their party rhetoric without attribution. To what end?
Who knows? What we do know is that many blog sites aren’t engaged in journalism, even as some display faint elements of journalism.
An alarming lack of transparency creates the major barrier to their ability to lay claim to the journalism banner, yet these same sites will breathlessly tell you about how they have a monopoly on the truth. We’ve seen these types of things before from established advocacy groups, but smaller blogs get increasingly ridiculous upon further scrutiny.
Founded in May 2013 and formerly known as TheOkieBlaze.com, the about page of FortySix News claims to be “your Oklahoma News Network.” With the redundantly sing-song dateline of “OKLAHOMA, OK,” the post states: “We work to bring you the truth no matter what it is.”
But who’s providing this truth? The page employs “we” throughout the post to imply a staff behind the content, yet hovering above the FortySix author tag reveals only “admin” as the source. The sole claim as to the site’s authorship occurs in the comments section, where a curious visitor rightly asks what anyone visiting the page might also wonder:
“Who are the folks behind Forty Six News?”
At least the site’s creator had the courtesy to answer. Using the Disqus handle of FortySix News, the reply lists Matthew Vermillion as “owner and Editor.” As such, one can probably assume Mr. Vermillion is the respondent as well as the man behind the site’s digital curtain, because who else but the owner/editor would capitalize “Editor” in such a response?
Vermillion clearly holds positions of political advocacy, and as such his inherent bias makes the “high-quality reporting” promoted in FortySix News’s Twitter bio nearly impossible to trust.
His LinkedIn profile notes Vermillion is the “Oklahoma state coordinator” for the Tea Party Patriots, an influential national tea party organization that actively supports and opposes specific political candidates.
In addition, Vermillion’s Facebook about page lists him as the owner of something called Freedom Radio Arts, which stopped posting in 2013 but was a big fan of TheBlaze, a conservative media network founded by Glenn Beck, whom few people would ever accuse of offering only “the truth” in his grandstanding.
Further, it surely constitutes an agenda when one of FortySix News’ favorite content sources is Rare.us, a conservative-libertarian site that launched in 2013 with the tagline “Red is the Center” but now claims to be “America’s News feed.” Jeb Bush and Reince Priebus are contributors.
Of course, both of those — the bias and agenda — are fine to have, so long as someone doesn’t claim to offer “high-quality reporting” and pronouncements about “the truth” along with them.
If FortySix News’s truth really has no agenda, why wouldn’t Mr. Vermillion clearly put his name and bio on the site? That answer would seem obvious.
Here are some examples of the site’s false rhetoric:
@FortySixNews: “FortySix News is Oklahoma’s News Network for information and high-quality reporting. Truth Has No Agenda! Send your press releases to news@FortySixNews.com”
Facebook: “FortySix News is a news and information destination that offers high-quality programming and reporting. http://FortySixNews.com/ ‘Truth Has No Agenda’”
Google+: “We don’t want to shape the debate we just want to report the truth!”
LinkedIn: “FortySix News is a multi-platform Oklahoma news, information and entertainment destination that offers high-quality programming and reporting. A network dedicated to delivering high quality programming 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We don’t want to shape the debate we just want to report the truth! “Truth Has No Agenda.” FortySixNews is a Limited Liability Company.”
TheOkie.com employs the tagline, “Unabashedly Political,” and it’s at least partly true: As of Monday afternoon, the site’s Home page featured story after story with tags like Budget, Governor, Education and State. Patently political topics, all.
What The Okie seems to be abashed about, however, is naming the people behind the site. While the site boasts it was “recognized by The Washington Post as Oklahoma’s top political news blog,” visitors to the about page see an inspirational quote about politics from author and journalist Martha Gellhorn but no names of site publishers or editors. Amusingly, Gellhorn’s name is misspelled.
But in a press release regarding the site’s Washington Post “recognition,” John Tidwell is identified as the site’s “Editor.” What Tidwell and the release fail to mention is that, according to the actual article on WaPo’s site, “… blogs have been nominated by Fix readers. Many of them are partisan. We do not endorse the views espoused in them.”
So not only does the Washington Post’s award stem from almost three years ago, it was also open for self-nomination. It’s not evident that The Okie nominated itself, but given that criteria for being considered consisted of simply filling out a form in 2013, it looks suspicious.
In fact, WaPo gives Feb. 4, 2013, as the date for readers to submit their favorite blogs for consideration on their list, while The Okie’s about page lists Feb. 1, 2013, as the post date.
The oldest post present on the site is dated Jan. 10, 2013.
So, the claim of being Oklahoma’s “top political news blog” as touted in their site’s header seems not only disingenuous and outdated by three years come February, but it also appears the site was only live for a maximum of one month prior to “winning” the “award.”
As for Tidwell, his personal Twitter page notes his continued editorship of The Okie, even after he was named Oklahoma director of Americans for Prosperity in October 2013.
Americans for Prosperity, of course, is the “main political arm” of David and Charles Koch, according to Politico. The Kochs are Kansas billionaire oil men and industry moguls who have poured outrageous sums of money into national and local political elections supporting conservative causes.
For a top “political news blog,” identifying one’s editor as an employee of an enormous advocacy organization would be ethical. Omitting such information is unethical.
Unlike the unintentional bumbling found in FortySix News, The Okie creates a more deliberate veneer of credibility with snappier copy in its social media profiles. Examples of the smokescreen:
@okiepolitics: “The Okie is your one stop shop for Oklahoma political news. Run by people who know politics, love it and strive to get more good people involved.”
Facebook: “We aim to be your one stop shop for Oklahoma political news. The Okie is run by people who know politics. We know it, we love it, and we strive to get more good people involved in the process. It’s in our blood.”
Google+: Oklahoma’s best source for political news. (tagline)
For comparison, contrast the two conservative-oriented blogs above with Okie Funk, a fairly well-known liberal blog. On the home page, it has:
- the site owner’s name (Kurt Hochenauer)
- his email address
- a picture of him
He’s so transparent that, without ever having met the guy, you could find him in a crowded rotunda.
Still, along with this transparency comes the same dubious WaPo blog “award” that The Okie claims. Okie Funk also displays three-years’ worth of “best of” awards from the now-defunct OkieDoke.com blog and the Oklahoma Bloggers Association. As for a mission, part of the site’s footer text exclaims: “Fighting for truth and justice!”
Surely there are at least two conservative bloggers who would contest those notions, whatever they may represent to “dochoc,” as the site’s creator refers to himself.
Okie Funk’s transparent social media messaging exists only on Twitter, as Hochenauer seems to have eschewed a Facebook profile specifically for the site, instead using his personal page. On Twitter, Okie Funk is explained thusly:
@okiefunk: “A blog of populist and liberal information and ideas, advancing the cause of truth and justice.”
‘An obligation to be honest’
What’s perhaps most puzzling about the obfuscation of site ownership among local political blogs is this: Why not own it? If you’re a conservative, right-wing, Republican whatever, why not narrowcast that ethos at high speed and tap into a near-rabid following? In a world where media and moguls make their money by being outright partisans, people can stand to capitalize by proudly standing up for their team and owning their affiliation as a marketing platform.
It works for Glenn Beck.
But back to the point about transparency.
In 2003, Bob Steele, senior faculty and ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute, spoke about the now-seemingly archaic principle of honesty with regard to bylines:
A newspaper has an obligation to be honest with its readers, to tell where a story originated and who is responsible. Readers deserve to know this information. … The news story byline personalizes the report so readers know someone is responsible for what’s reported and written. It allows readers to hold someone accountable for the story. In essence, the byline says, “Believe this information because my name is on it.”
Granted, Steele was speaking about traditional newspapers, which now constitute the dinosaurs of information, but why wouldn’t the same ethical principles live on with regard to blogs, albeit politically slanted blogs?
Sites can claim the mantle of many things, but if the about page itself lacks the creator’s name or otherwise identifying information (and no, a name in the comments section doesn’t count) then journalism can’t be one of them.
(Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to clarify references to the awards noted on the Okie Funk blog, as well as to Hochenauer’s Facebook page.)