Friday, September 2, 2011

If I were any more transparent, I'd be invisible

Blogging is a wonderful but often weird and wacky hobby. The ability to contribute my ideas and opinions to the political discussion, not to mention the chance to potentially shape that discussion, is a privilege, and not one that I take lightly. Lately, there has been a lot of debate about the proper role for political bloggers and the controversial influence of advertising money and other conflicts of interest, so I thought I would share a few thoughts.

My very first post on this blog included a quote from the First Amendment and a statement that I was going to chart my own course here:
I have a pretty strong sarcastic streak, an occasionally nutty sense of humor, and some very strong opinions about politics and politicians. It's possible, if not probable, that from time to time I'm going to ruffle some feathers here.
I never planned for this website to follow a traditional journalism model. I do not have the resources or staff of the many newspapers, radio, and television programs around the state, and I see little utility in trying to compete with them. I recognize that because I attend a lot of political events, I may occasionally be able to break a story or provide a unique angle on the day's news (see here, here, and here), but that was never my primary goal for Sunshine State Sarah.

My original - and current - purpose for this website was simply to share my opinions and start some discussions. I decided from the beginning that I was going to be as transparent as possible. I directly and explicitly declare my allegiances, and I believe I am one of the very few bloggers who discloses their endorsements. I've certainly never seen one do so as openly as I do, with an "Endorsement" link viewable from every page on this site. I want to share my opinions, advocate for candidates I support, and argue for my causes. 

More, from my "Policies" page:
I am under no obligation to give equal or fair coverage, to remain unbiased, or to refrain from promoting one candidate over another. I openly disclose my official list of endorsed candidates, and have strong opinions about many other races. I am intentionally "unfair" in how I cover the candidates on this site.  

I have not taken, and will never take, any financial compensation for my endorsement. If a candidate hires me as an attorney or as a political consultant, that takes place only after I have decided to personally endorse that candidate. I would make more money if I were willing to work for whoever showed up first with a check, but I refuse to have any conflicts between my personal political convictions and my business practices. 
There is a lot of talk today about bias in journalism, but I do not see any way to completely remove bias from the media business. Every person has opinions and biases; that is part of what makes us human. In my opinion, the best solution is not to give in to the fallacy that truly unbiased reporting is possible, but to be as transparent as possible about the biases of the person reporting the story, and let readers decide for themselves the merit and trustworthiness of that story.

On the note of "business practices," I am not a blogger. I am an election/campaign finance law attorney and political consultant who happens to have a blog. There is no way to completely separate what I do for a living with what I write here. I have worked for too many candidates and organizations to be able write about Florida politics and not occasionally write about someone for whom I've worked.

That being said, the content of this website is mine, and mine alone. I have always made it very clear to my clients that they will not be able to control what I write here. Obviously, if I have decided to work for a candidate, then I am loyal to that candidate: I am not going to work all day to get someone elected and then come home and attack that same person in a blog post. Even If I'm not working for someone, if I support a candidate and I've decided to endorse them, I am going to promote them.

Another issue is that certain interpretations of the state and federal election laws might restrict my freedom of speech if I allowed political candidates to dictate the content of this website. Sunshine State Sarah is not a political advertisement and I successfully fought a First Amendment battle with the Florida Elections Commission earlier this year on my right to not have political advertisement disclaimers all over this website.

I am on a lot of email and mailing lists for many candidates, elected officials, and organizations, and sometimes I will cut and paste from these messages (e.g., from a candidate's press release) for a blog post. But the crucial legal issue is that when I do that, it is my own choice to use the material, what the post title will be, what excerpts I will use, and what, if any, commentary I want to add. The post is still completely my decision and under my control.

As I have said over and over again, this website is my personal opinion, and if you disagree with it, wonderful! That's the purpose of the First Amendment. Go start your own blog and write about why I'm wrong. But don't tell me I don't have a right to voice my own opinion or that there's something sinister or unethical about me doing so. That's an illogical argument and marks you as not even worth taking the time to debate.

On the issue of (gasp!) money, this website makes money in three ways: donations, GoogleAds, and direct paid advertising. The donations are from friendly readers who like what they are reading and decide to hit the tip jar. The GoogleAds pay me a certain amount per page view and a higher amount if someone actually clicks on an ad. The GoogleAds are scattered around the site in a mixture of image and text ads. I sell direct advertising in several formats. Some of the ads are image or text links that look very similar to the GoogleAds. (Note: not all the images in the sidebars are paid advertisements; some of those are just images I added myself.)

I have also, on certain rare occasions, posted a "Sponsored Blog Post," which is a press release or other short written piece that someone has paid me to publish. I've been very selective about doing those and you probably haven't seen one unless you have read every single post I've published for months. If the post is sponsored, it will say "Sponsored Blog Post" at the end. If the post does not say that, then it is not a paid post. Simple.

As I mentioned, part of my income derives from campaign consulting work. The attorney-client confidentiality rules prevent me from disclosing information earlier than campaign finance reporting laws require if I do not have my clients' permission, but you can easily find me on candidates' campaign finance reports when they are made public. I am always listed under either my name or the name of my company, "Caffeinated Campaigns & Consulting, LLC." If you want to know if I am working for someone, just look up the reports or ask me.

Most of the direct advertising I have sold has been to business clients, not political candidates, so the agreements are private and you will not see them listed on any public report, like you would for a campaign finance report. I am not going to discuss the details of private contracts with my clients but if you want to know if someone has bought ads, just ask and I will give you a yes or no answer.

In May 2010, when I first started this blog, I made the decision to use my real name. I wanted to be able to write directly and honestly about what I knew about Florida politics and what I was personally witnessing without inspiring any scavenger hunts for people to track me down. Writing under my own name has ensured that I make sure I fully believe in what I write and that I am willing to be accountable for it. It has earned me additional media exposure and some wonderful friends, but it has also made me a target for those who disagree with what I have written. I love a good debate, but disappointingly those who seek to attack me rarely bother to argue a case on the merits.

I've been accused of so many ridiculous things, I've lost track, but one common accusation is that I am a paid shill for a candidate who is running against the candidate favored by the person who is attacking me. It's the easiest litmus test on earth: if someone starts out their argument with "You are getting paid, therefore you are wrong," then I know that they will not be able to offer any decent argument whatsoever after that.

Can you see the logical issue here? If I say, "I'm supporting Candidate A because of X," and your response is "You're saying that because A pays you," you have not proven that X is not true. I don't see anyone accusing people of being paid shills if they post a favorable link about a candidate on their Facebook pages, but if I create a post that is favorable to a candidate, suddenly I'm suspect? The only difference between me and those who are "liking" a link on Facebook is time invested: I took more time to draft and revise a post than others would to simply link to it. We're both passing on a message to our social networks that we support a candidate or cause.

The response I will always have to these accusations is that it does not matter whether I am getting paid a million dollars or nothing at all, my opinion is my opinion and if you have some information to rebut or correct what I've said, let me know, otherwise please go find a hobby and leave me alone.

As of today, you have about 16 months of my opinions on this website, and an insanely-prolific 27,000 tweets on my Twitter account, which I've had since March 2009. My opinions are easily found. I'm loud, I'm obnoxious, I overshare, I get into debates, I'm sarcastic and occasionally sharp-tongued. I am really, really, really opinionated, and stubborn as a mule about it. Only a person who doesn't know me at all or is patently dishonest would suggest that anyone even has a chance of buying my endorsement or approval.

In other words, the candidates who hire me do not affect my opinions, but my opinions do affect which candidates I am willing to work for.

Here's my promise to my readers: I'm going to stay just as opinionated as ever. The writing you see here and on my Twitter account will continue to be sharp and snarky. There are candidates that I like, and I'm going to tell you why I like them. I'll continue to be transparent as possible about any aspect of my financial or professional life that interacts with this website, and I can trust that the vast majority of you are capable of reading what I write and making up your own mind about it.

To the few who seek to attack me, you only further my resolve to continue to speak my mind, criticize unethical behavior where I see it, and fight for the causes that I hold dear. Your efforts win you no new converts and only encourage me to work harder.

I leave you with the words of two wise men...

Winston Churchill:
You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something in your life.
...and Tom Petty:

YouTube | Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers - I Won't Back Down
Well I know what's right 
I got just one life 
In a world that keeps on pushin' me around 
But I'll stand my ground 
And I won't back down. 


  1. the idiots who are attacking you are just Guetzloe and his single-digit list of friends.

    ignore them. or just play that Tom Petty song really loudly. ;-)

  2. Sounds similar to my policy -- though I'm more likely to be accused of mind-numbed robotude because I don't derive any part of my income from politics or campaigns.

    Simply put, my response to would-be trolls is, "This blog is my property, and if you don't like what you see here, get offa my lawn."

    It seems to work.


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