The Quest For Online Integrity

Originally published at NationalJournal.com
By K. Daniel Glover

Old Mr. Webster defines integrity as “the quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty, and sincerity.” That seems simple enough. But in the bitterly partisan, shoot-from-the-hip realm that is the blogosphere, defining integrity is anything but simple.

Just ask Josh Trevino. He is the motivating force behind a blog called Online Integrity, which bills itself as “a nonpartisan, non-ideological commitment to basic decency.” The project generated both enthusiasm and endorsements for a few days in early May. But its call for bloggers to respect people’s privacy on the Internet quickly deteriorated into the kind of partisan, virtual shouting match that is endemic to the blogosphere.

Though more than 200 bloggers have signed the “statement of principles” at the site, the quest for a nonpartisan consensus about virtue among bloggers is all but dead. There have been no posts at Online Integrity or the related Yahoo group in weeks, and much of the commentary since the initial wave of praise has been critical. The project even spawned a satire blog.

“A very frustrating and informative exercise in coalition-building,” Trevino lamented of his efforts.

Trevino, a co-founder of RedState, had high expectations at the outset of the project. Having witnessed personal attacks against some of his blogger friends on the right and the outcry on the left over the decision by Michelle Malkin to post the contact information of anti-war protestors, Trevino thought the time was ripe for an ethical consensus.

Four bloggers, two each from the right’s RedState and Daily Kos on the left, supported Trevino’s plan for a “code of practice.” About a dozen other bloggers — more from the left than the right, Trevino said — were invited to help draft the understanding.

“With the exception of Oliver Willis, who sent a rather petulant e-mail charging us with covering for Michelle Malkin … and Georgia10 of [Daily Kos], who remained silent, all the invitees agreed to participate,” Trevino said.

The “code” ultimately was changed to a “statement,” and the final product encompassed three principles: not posting personal contact information online, protecting the identities of those who wish to remain anonymous, and not publicizing or driving traffic to Web sites that violate the principles.

When published, Online Integrity benefited from a burst of positive publicity across the political spectrum. The signers included: Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber; Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice; Jim Geraghty of National Review Online; Hugh Hewitt; Ezra Klein; Ed Morrissey of Captain’s Quarters; Instapundit Glenn Reynolds; Max Sawicky; and Andrew Sullivan. John Cole of Balloon Juice was so supportive that he vowed to drop sites from his blogroll over it.

“I do think that establishing some norms for the blogging community is useful,” Outside the Beltway concluded, “and such documents and the discussion about them helps advance that goal.”

But the honeymoon was short-lived. Liberal bloggers took exception to matters of integrity the statement did not address. Others mentioned participating blogs that link to Malkin and concluded that the statement was not serious. And still others, noting the lead role played by Trevino, dismissed the effort as a right-wing ploy designed to blast left-wing bloggers for perceived violations of the statement.

“I do not need the online ethics police to tell me how to act ethically online,” Chris Bowers wrote at MyDD, “and I certainly do not need the online ethics police to imply that I am unethical for not signing their ‘pledge.'”

Some conservative bloggers also criticized the project. Malkin was a part of the early discussions about Online Integrity but asked Trevino to remove her name from the site. Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs also withdrew after deciding that “any such statement will be used in a legalistic way that will quickly make the statement itself meaningless.”

The public reaction did not surprise Susan G, an anonymous blogger from Daily Kos who initially joined Trevino’s effort as an individual rather than a representative of Daily Kos. After reading e-mails among the drafters, she became disenchanted and withdrew before the formal launch of Online Integrity.

“Blame began, self-righteousness and self-justification started going, feints at personal attacks (not full-fledged, but warning signs) were underway,” Susan G said. “Nitpicking stuff about wording went on…. I simply couldn’t see, after reading through these dozens and dozens of exchanges, how any meeting of minds was really going to take place.”

She feared that the principles were “going to be used as just one more weapon by both sides.” Trevino, on the other hand, said the root cause of Online Integrity’s downfall was not the statement but the unrelenting criticism and especially the lobbying against it.

“I am profoundly disappointed in the online left’s reaction to the concept,” Trevino said. “It is one thing to not sign on — virtue, after all, is not found in a signature — but it is another thing entirely to attack and deride the concept. That remains a source of immense regret… for those rejecting the opportunity to push the blogosphere in a sane or ethical direction.”

But Gandelman thinks the idea may yet prove worthwhile. “The fact that a statement of principles was drawn up illustrated that some bloggers of varying viewpoints reached a point where they stopped and said: ‘Wait a minute, in the beginning weren’t blogs supposed to be something more than this?… Do we really want to head down this road — a road without any signposts?'”

Media Bloggers Association President Robert Cox questioned whether Online Integrity is “a solution looking for a problem.” Though MBA (of which I am a member) has a similar statement of principles, he said he would like to believe that most bloggers already act with integrity.

But Cox also said “guideposts” are valuable for bloggers who may not appreciate “the various legal and ethical issues” of online publishing. “If Online Integrity or the MBA statement of principles helps in this regard… then some good is being accomplished,” he said.

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