Bloggers Selling Links to Marketers?

After a solid night's sleep atop my Sealy Posturpedic mattress with the tempurpedic foam matress topper, I like to wake up by reclining on my charmingly contemporary Mitchell Gold sofa, drinking one of the ice cold Diet Cokes that I always stock in my LG fridge, and reading the morning news on my Macintosh Powerbook Pro.  


Well, I certainly got a wake-up call this morning.  You can imagine my shock and horror when I learned (via Google Reader and Twitter) that some bloggers may have actually accepted money to mention companies and commercial products such as our fantastic 50-inch Panasonic Viera plasma television.

How could this be, I wondered.  My eyes were slowly traversing our fantastic assortment of halloween-themed Yankee Candle collectibles, but I wasn't really seeing their eerie beauty.  What could induce someone to sell out their journalistic ethics like a (top-rated) 2011 Lexus ES?  The mind boggles.

Dell, T-Mobile and Motorola are among the marketers claimed as clients by 43a, which offers online journalists cash compensation if they'll link to its clients' web pages in their articles. Not only are the links not flagged to readers as payola; the writers in question are encouraged to keep the payments secret from their employers. The arrangement came to light after Gawker's Hamilton Nolan was approached about taking part and opted to blow the lid off it instead
Allegedly, these links may have appeared in places like the Huffington Post.  Though of course I have no doubt that the editors would never farm links to make money, they can't exercise perfect oversight of such a large crew of freelancers.

What's remarkable--really, almost as remarkable as the amazing cleaning power of my new Philips Sonicare toothbrush--is that this doesn't happen more often, in new publications, or old.  To be sure, the Chinese wall between editorial and advertising is not always perfect at every publication--ever seen a bad review of a beauty product in a glossy women's mag?  But as I remarked this morning to my husband, while we were both enjoying selections from an array of the delicious Kellogs cereals that provide a balanced and nutritious breakfast for under 250 calories, the temptations to offer journalists bribes for favorable coverage have to be at least as great as the temptation to give in and treat yourself to the all-new Jura® Impressa J9 One-Touch TFT Espresso Machine.  

This has long been a problem with information markets: the information is usually more valuable to the person or entity that it's about, than it is to the people who consume it.  It was worth much more to a bond issuer to get a good rating from Moody's, than it was to any individual investor to make sure that those ratings were as accurate as, say, an Oxo Digital Kitchen Scale with Pull-Out Display.

Sure, collectively it might be worth their while. But it's hard to coordinate that sort of collective action.  The temptation for any individual investor will always be to free ride like a test-driver at BMW of Alexandria.

So with news stories: are you going to pay someone to monitors New York Times reporters, or the New York Times, to make sure that they aren't selling out?  When you could be spending that money on the Wii Limited Edition Red Bundle with the Advanced Sports Pak?

So why don't we see more of these scandals?  Why are they still so shocking?  I see several possibilities:

1.  Media outlets have successfully suppressed this sort of thing by enacting what is essentially the career death penalty for plagiarism, fabrication, or bribery: in most cases, it's one strike and you're out, forever, at any news outlet you'd want to work for.  That raises the price of corruption unacceptably high.

2.  Most people are basically honest provided that they're in a community with strong norms about honesty.  And trust me, journalists have very strong norms about this sort of thing.

3.  Journalist bribery is very difficult to catch.

Probably, some combination of these factors are in play, but I'd lean most heavily on one and two: given the sheer output of words in this business, and the autonomy that journalists enjoy, the rate of malfeasance is really remarkably low.  There really are some things money can't buy.  

For everything else, of course, there's MasterCard.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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