Caught in a blog bog
How an S.F. campaign finance law got fledgling online journalists all up in a tizzy
By Matthew Hirsch
Michael Bassik, an avid political junkie living in Washington, D.C., learned late last month that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was considering a law that could lead the city to regulate Web logs, also known as blogs. A contributor to the Personal Democracy Forum, a bipartisan blog on politics in the technology age, Bassik posted an alert March 31 that warned of innovation-stifling policy ahead.
Bassik got a few key facts wrong, and by traditional journalism standards, he did a poor job on the reporting. He didn't call anyone at City Hall to check his facts. But he had a valid concern and because of the public pressure he stirred up, the supervisors agreed to exempt bloggers from the proposed law, a campaign finance reform called the Electioneering Communications Ordinance. The ordinance, which could be one of the first government decisions to recognize bloggers as journalists, came up for a vote April 12 (after the Bay Guardian went to press).
The legislation at issue includes Internet communications as part of an effort to enact campaign finance reform. That leaves the city trying to categorize bloggers either as part of the traditional news media or as political agents. The truth is probably some amalgamation of the two, and Bassik is a perfect example.
Aside from being a blogger, he's a political consultant whose firm MSHC Partners, the nation's largest direct mail and Internet advertising company, has clients in San Francisco.
A former intern at the White House, the New York Times, and New York City Hall, Bassik has worked as a political ad strategist for AOL/Time Warner and MSHC, where he serves as vice president of Internet advertising.
The message Bassik posted on his blog set off a frenzy that traveled below the mainstream media radar all the way to San Francisco City Hall. What's especially interesting about the message is that had it been written in the midst of a local election, it could conceivably have qualified as the type of political speech at which the proposed law is directed (see "San Francisco May Regulate Blogging," at www.personaldemocracy.com/node/501). After all, it targets a local official, Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who sponsored the measure.
Bassik said the ordinance "would require local bloggers to register with the city's Ethics Commission and report all blog-related costs that exceed $1,000 in the aggregate." Citing deputy city attorney Chad Jacobs whom he never spoke to (although he did watch a televised hearing at which Jacobs spoke) Bassik warned that certain blogs would also be subject to registration fees and Web traffic audits.
That's not exactly accurate, since the legislation itself says nothing specifically about blogs. Matt Dorsey, the city attorney's press spokesperson, told us Bassik "completely misrepresented" Jacobs's statements and the legal advice the City Attorney's Office has been dispensing all along.
"There's no appetite in San Francisco to regulate blogs," he said.
Even so, Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier is concerned that by trying to cover all Internet communications, the ordinance could force unnecessary regulations on many groups, including bloggers. At the supervisors' hearing, she argued in favor of exempting Internet communications entirely from the legislation.
Bassik also failed to disclose that a prime target of the ordinance, the California Urban Issues Project, is an MSHC client.
The ordinance is meant to close a loophole that enabled well-funded groups like the CUIP to send out hit pieces on certain candidates without revealing the source of their funding. (One last November, funded by the CUIP, suggested Sup. Gerardo Sandoval had a soft spot for Nazis.)
The reason those attack ads weren't reported like ordinary campaign literature is because, though the message was clear, they didn't say, "Vote for [this candidate]" or "Vote against [that one]." So they didn't fall into the established definitions of campaign materials or independent (third-party) expenditures.
Richard Schlackman, a partner at MSHC, told us he personally thought the Sandoval attacks, which his firm didn't work on, were "terrible." But he argued that the proposed legislation would do more harm than good. It would have a chilling effect on citizen activism, he said, and political consulting firms like his own would get paid more money to find another loophole in the law. "There's never been a campaign finance law that somebody didn't get around," Schlackman told the Bay Guardian.
Without including any context about San Francisco elections, Bassik stirred his audience to action over the general fear that Maxwell could be waging an assault on the First Amendment. "Let's all send quick e-mails even just a sentence or two to Supervisor Maxwell," he wrote.
Reached April 8 at his D.C. office, Bassik characterized the publicity surrounding San Francisco's campaign finance reform as a "tremendously successful campaign."
"I wanted to get people up in arms about this," he told us. "People can look back and say you're an alarmist, but in truth they never would have [written the blogger exemption] if we didn't give the response that we did."
There's no disputing that Bassik's appeal was effective. News spread far and wide over the Internet, through the local blogging community (see "Sophie Maxwell Pisses Off the Blogosphere," at www.sfist.com) and on to a national audience via Slashdot. In a low point for the traditional media, the Investor's Business Daily reported the San Francisco "attacks against blogs" in an editorial that apparently relied exclusively on the information reported in Bassik's blog. (Although IBD's Kerry Jackson, who wrote the editorial, said the publication always relies on legitimate media sources, he couldn't identify what source he used for the piece and there were no mainstream news media reports on the issue before the editorial ran.)
Hundreds of e-mails poured in from around the country before supervisor and part-time blogger Chris Daly introduced an amendment that shoe-horned online journalists in with traditional media. Maxwell, the supposed brainchild of blogger regulation, supported the amendment.
The blogger amendment, Maxwell aide Greg Asay told us, was intended to quell the uproar and refocus attention on campaign finance reform in time for the 2005 local elections.
In the meantime, the nine supervisors who have supported the ordinance may now have to convince voters that they're not trying to regulate bloggers, as was reported on the Internet. That has lots of people in City Hall wondering why Bassik, whose firm represents a group that tried to unseat some of those very supervisors, got the blog world as riled up as he did.
David Owen, a daily blog reader who works for Sup. Aaron Peskin, told us he's now questioning if bloggers deserve to be categorized with the established media, especially after Internet-fueled uproar over the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and now the "San Francisco attack on bloggers."
"All that stuff with blogs, it's fascinating. But traditional journalists they are not," Owen told us.
As part of a lawsuit Apple Computers recently filed against a group of bloggers to force them to reveal the source of leaked information, the federal courts are also delving into the question of whether a blogger should be considered a journalist. The answer, says First Amendment Project director David Greene, who is helping to write a brief in the Apple case, depends on the circumstances.
"It should be of no significance to label someone either a blogger or a journalist. Their status isn't what's important. It's what function they are performing," Greene told us.
So which function was Bassik, a reporter and a political consultant, performing when he wrote about San Francisco's Electioneering Communications Ordinance? Obviously he was both. And legally, perhaps it's just too dicey to try to split the two apart.
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