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Pondering conflicts

This is a follow up to my earlier post on Jim McCarthy and Off Wing Opinion, in light of further contemplation on my part and Eric’s post-mortem post.

On reflection, I’m pretty comfortable saying that there are potential issues here. Blogs may not be newspapers, but allow me to quote Jim on using blogs for PR:

“Blogs opened up a new front. It was a process of germination. The plan was to construct ideas with the media that would act as a filter so they would read subsequent pieces of information with the lens that you created.”

So it’s pretty hard not to believe that Jim uses blogs as a means of instilling his ideas in the media, since he’s on record as using them that way. And we know that Title IX reform is an idea he’s paid to push. Jim’s blogging on Off Wing Opinion benefits his clients. Now, is this a conflict of interest? From an ethical standpoint, no, unless you think that Jim has an ethical obligation to separate his blogging from his business. I may expect that, but where do those expectations come from? Nobody but myself.

But what about the practical aspects? At the core, the concept of conflict of interest is a practical one. We avoid them so that we never have to say “Hm, but what would he say if he wasn’t getting paid to say that?” When we avoid conflicts of interest, we strengthen our own arguments. When I read (say) Daily Kos, I am always aware that Markos Moulitsas has worked as a paid Democratic consultant — so there’s gonna be some bias there. Similarily, from an objective standpoint, I have to wonder the same thing about Jim’s posts.

Now! All that said, Jim did not make any secret of his previous involvement in Title IX reform, and he was up front about it when I asked. Implying otherwise was wrong and I am embarassed that I gave into my tendency to shoot without thinking. God bless the Internet for making it easy to forget that other people are people. To the degree that there’s a conflict of interest, it was disclosed up front. I would have liked it if Jim had mentioned that he works for the guy he interviewed, but that’s water under the bridge.

The other important thing I forgot is that Eric is a mensch. I trust Eric’s judgement, and I believe him when he says that he asked Jim to blog because he respects Jim’s expertise on the subject. Since I trust Eric, I should be willing to accept that Title IX reform is a subject that would be important to Jim whether or not he was getting paid to care about it. If I look at Jim’s track record — which includes the Religious Freedom Act of 1994, that legalized the use of peyote in Indian religious ceremonies — I see a guy who’s a fervent libertarian in a way that I can respect and appreciate.

Long post short: I don’t think I’d have asked Jim to guest blog if I were in Eric’s shoes, because I prefer to steer very clear of conflict of interest issues. However, I don’t think that Eric made a mistake asking Jim to guest blog. I shot from the hip, spoke too soon, and regret some but not all of what I said.

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