Dan Gerstein, Greg Sargent and a Word on Transparency

The editors of the Politico shouldn't get off so easily in a little Internet spat.

There comes a time in the life of most every publication when it runs into some ethical quandary concerning the affiliations of one of its contributors. More often than not, the trouble could have been avoided by a couple of words in the author’s bio, or a line or two in the article itself disclosing whatever ties the author has to a person or group that smacks of impropriety.

To be honest, we’re dumbfounded whenever one of these issues pops up, as journalists and editors know full well that transparency—more so now than ever—has become a hallmark of good journalism. But pop up they do, again and again.

Yesterday, Talkingpointsmemo.com’s Greg Sargent sniffed out one such problem in a February 16 article published in the Politico, the new political news publication put together by a gaggle of big name Washington journalists.

The article, by political consultant Dan Gerstein, was a full-throated attack on the liberal blogosphere, which he considers to be “impudent, impotent, unreflective and unaccountable.” Alliteration aside, the piece shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since Gerstein has been involved in a long flame war with the liberal blogosphere, or what he called in the Wall Street Journal the Democratic party’s “angry activist base,” back in January 2006.

In March of last year, he also got into a spat with a blogger at the liberal HuffingtonPost, who had criticized Joe Lieberman, who Gerstein works for. Gerstein originally wrote an anonymous letter to the site, demanding that the offending post be pulled, softening them up with gems such as this: “I have great respect for your site precisely because unlike much of the liberal blogosphere, your commentators have refrained from this kind of ugly vituperation and written on a far higher plane.”

Much, if not all, of the bad blood between Gerstein and the liberal blogosphere comes from his long affiliation with Lieberman, especially in his capacity as communications director for the senator’s re-election campaign in 2006, during which Lieberman was Enemy No. 1 among the netroots community, which did everything it could to kick him out of office.

Pissing matches like this have become commonplace in our modern political discourse, so Gerstein’s February 16 article only created a few ripples in the blogosphere, and was quickly moving toward the digital dustbin when TPM’s Sargent flagged a problem with Gerstein’s bio line, which read:

Dan Gerstein, who served as communications director for Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s successful general election campaign in 2006, is a political consultant based in New York City and the author of the blog Dangerous Thoughts.

The problem is that another article in the Politico noted that Gerstein “continues to serve as a paid adviser” to Lieberman, which means that “The Politico let Gerstein publish a long attack on some of Lieberman’s most visible foes — without mentioning that Gerstein is currently advising Lieberman and even appears to be getting paid by Lieberman or by his office or political committee,” Sargent wrote.

Gerstein shot back today on his blog, arguing that “whether I am a paid, unpaid, or former advisor to Lieberman was not relevant to my column. I was not writing in any Lieberman capacity or on his behalf — I was expressing my own opinions. And the content of the column was not about Lieberman — it barely mentioned him — but about the blindness and irresponsibility of many liberal bloggers.”

While he’s right that his piece barely mentions Lieberman (he refers to the Lieberman-Lamont Senate race twice in order to show how nasty liberal bloggers are), he’s sidestepping a crucial point — that he’s still on Lieberman’s payroll, and that the liberal blogosphere ain’t anywhere near through bashing his boss.

And that, friends, is one important reason why we have bio lines, to announce such connections.

We’re not saying that Gerstein is hiding his affiliation with Lieberman — he is quoted as working for him in the other Politico story, but from a journalistic standpoint, his continuing relationship with Lieberman, and all the history with liberal bloggers that that relationship entails, does in fact taint his piece.

While Gerstein claims innocence, it’s important to remember that he’s a political operative, and thus he works under a very different set of rules than a journalist. His goal is to push the interests of his clients, period. It’s the editors of the Politico who should have known better.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.