It’s a Pig, Anyway You Look at It

Sometimes a story is so good, so rich in context and so revealing in detail, that it virtually leaps off the page as something special.

Other times, only by leaving out context, burying important information, and emphasizing misleading details can a reporter dress up a non-story into something that resembles a legitimate article.

They hand out Pulitzers for reporters who track down the former. Alas, William M. Bulkeley and James Bandler, the Wall Street Journal reporters responsible for the latest example of the latter, are going to have to settle for something a bit less prestigious.

Let’s call it the “Lipstick On a Pig Award” — the LOPA for short. Bulkeley and Bandler began earning their LOPA right at the outset of their piece today, called “Dean Campaign Made Payments to Two Bloggers.” Here’s the lede:

Howard Dean’s presidential campaign hired two Internet political “bloggers” as consultants so that they would say positive things about the former governor’s campaign in their online journals, according to a former high-profile Dean aide.

That sounds pretty bad — until you consider the fact that one of those bloggers, Markos Moulitsas (who the piece calls Markos Zuniga), was himself the first to disclose his relationship to the Dean campaign with a disclaimer on his site — albeit one that said only that he was doing “technical work” for the Dean campaign. The other blogger, Jerome Armstrong, was on blogging hiatus while he was getting paid to work for the Dean campaign.

Those are the facts that take the sting out of a sensational lede. They’re also the facts that don’t appear until the eighth paragraph of the ten-paragraph piece.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some very important ethical questions when it comes to bloggers and compensation. But this is an attempted mugging by implication (the implication here being that these bloggers took the money, didn’t disclose it, and then giddily blogged for Dean), followed by omission. There have been examples recently of precisely the sort of thing the Journal piece promises, but fails to deliver in this story — most notably, in South Dakota, where two prominent local bloggers were paid more than $30,000 by the John Thune election campaign without disclosing the connection. But that’s not even the comparison Bulkeley and Bandler try to draw here.

Instead, in a truly convoluted piece of logic, they try to paint the Moulitsas/Armstong case as the equivalent of the notorious Armstrong Williams example of play-for-pay. Here’s their third paragraph:

The issue of political payments to commentators has become hot following disclosures that the Bush administration paid a conservative radio and newspaper pundit, Armstrong Williams, $240,000 to plug its “No Child Left Behind” education policy.

That’s a disconnect, implying a similarity between the Williams case and the bloggers the Journal is trying to skewer — a similarity that just isn’t there, considering, among other things, the disclosure issue. (And Moulitsas makes no bones about the fact that he is a political activist, not a journalist; he has said, more than once, that his mission is to get selected candidates elected.)

All this is gives us reason enough to present the our inaugural LOPA to Bulkeley and Bandler for dressing up a non-story so thoroughly that it looked, at first glance, as if it actually belonged in the newspaper.

Miss Piggy may look prettier with the lipstick, but she’s still got no business at the ball.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.