Avoiding Propaganda

Is this the future of journalism on the web? Robert Scoble, the A-list social media maven, recently accepted several thousand dollars from Cisco Systems to cover one of the company’s product launches. Scoble says he resigned from Fast Company on February 28 and did the paid work for Cisco on March 9. Although there appears to be another interview with Cisco on the Fast Company TV site. Here’s Scoble explaining (full post here):

Honesty is the best policy - when there is money in it. - Mark Twain

"Honesty is the best policy - when there is money in it." - Mark Twain

“Why did they pay me? I learned a few reasons: 1. it’s still tough for big companies to give access to engineers and developers without having the ability to kill an interview. Why is that? Engineers often talk about stuff that they weren’t supposed to and also sometimes they are just boring or not able to communicate clearly what the company is trying to do. 2. they feel more comfortable giving us deep access if they know they can control embargo dates/times.”

In other words, Scoble sold full editorial control of his content to Cisco. Amazingly, Scoble explains this away as a nuance – not a violation of journalism ethics that it is. Most business journalists want engineers and other employees to “talk about stuff that they weren’t supposed to.” The goal of a journalist is to cut through the corporate messaging and positioning to get at the heart of a story. That’s why a legitimate journalists would never accept payment from the subject of their story.

What Scoble did has a name: Propaganda. To his credit, Scoble is giving away his share of the money, $4,500 (but his engineering partner kept his share). Also to his credit, Scoble has admitted publicly that he was paid by Cisco. Again Scoble: “I think Cisco’s announcements are so interesting and important for you to pay attention to (if you are in the datacenter business) that I didn’t want you to worry about whether I was corrupted by this money or not. So, I decided to give it away in a contest.”

But Scoble misses the point. It isn’t really about the money. It’s about the fact that he was willing to sell control of the story in the first place. It doesn’t matter if he sold it for a penny or for $10,000. So even though he’s giving away the money – he was corrupted by the arrangement. He let himself be bought.

But this really shouldn’t be surprising. Scoble isn’t a journalist (despite once working for Fast Company) and has never been trained as one. He’s a pundit pretending to be a journalist (he’ll continue doing this type of work at his new job at Rackspace). I’m willing to give Scoble the benefit of the doubt that he doesn’t even realize that what he did would be considered highly unethical at any newspaper or magazine – and, in fact, would be a high crime worthy of dismissal.

This is a danger zone as newspapers and magazines crash and burn in the Great Media Collapse of 2009. While it might be impossible to save print publications – it should be a priority to save journalism. Free societies need trained observers and reporters with high ethical standards to be the watchdogs of government and businesses. Most bloggers and social media pundits are not journalists even though they provide us with information. Many of them are consultants (I’m one of those myself – although I was trained as and worked as a journalist for 10 years) with corporate connections and clients.

Expect more stories like this one in the upcoming months. As private and public companies begin to publish their own content – many are hiring ex-journalists and bloggers to create “news” like web sites. There will also be lots of temptation for companies to pay bloggers to write about them or create content not clearly labeled as coming from their PR or marketing departments. Transparency and honesty will be important.

Companies should be engaging and connecting with customers and providing them with valuable information. It’s good for business and good for customers. But it needs to be done ethically and responsibly. We need to recognize as a society that corporate content isn’t “news.” It’s crucial that we don’t confuse the two.

UPDATE: Apparently Cisco asked Scoble to remove the videos they paid him to produce. Here’s more information on the flap at Scoble’s FriendFeed account. Looks like Cisco’s investment in Scoble has already paid off.

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