Transparency is binary

I don’t know if it’s the concept behind PayPerPost that got parts of the blogosphere’s knickers twisting or that the company got venture funding. Either way, it’s entertaining to watch the teeth gnashing and hand wringing over the lack of transparency in new media.

Most entertaining of all, in a disturbing sort of way, is Jeff Jarvis, who pledges that he will disclose his business relationships “whenever it is relevant and possible.”

Two questions:

  1. When is it ever not relevant to disclose a conflict of interest?
  2. When is it ever not possible to disclose?

Reading this makes me suspect, albeit vaguely, that Jarvis might disclose conflicts — or the appearance of conflicts — only when it is convenient.

To his credit Jarvis has an extensive and admirable “Disclosures” section on his Web site and he generally discloses potential conflicts in-context, in his writing. But his apparent hedging in his “pledge” is troubling.

Look, transparency is binary — a writer/publication either is or it isn’t. Not just when it’s convenient. Not just when it’s easy. Either/or; on/off; is/isn’t.

When I was an independent video producer in the 1970s, there was a dichotomy between the independent producers and the tee-vee people that was similar to that between the bloggers and the professional journalists today. The tee-vee guys had a saying: “it doesn’t have to be real; it just has to look real.” Therein lied the difference between us and them and perhaps there, too, lies the difference that makes a difference in the blogosphere.

Update: Sunday, 22 October 2006 5:03PM CDT: From Jeff Jarvis, via email (with permission):

“Fair questions. Relevant means that transparency in the extreme is an autobiography; it’s not relevant that I pay the landscaper because I don’t blog about him. When possible means what I said on my disclosure page: I cannot reveal the investors in a new company in which I’m involved yet and so I’m telling you that and I will reveal them as soon as it’s possible; when to reveal them is not my decision. I should have explained that out on the post.”

My followup: So long as you’re not writing about the new company or any of its competitors, I suppose I can warily buy your logic. But to quote your own words, from a very close if not exact context: “It really is that simple. And the more complicated you make the rules, the more loopholes you end up building in.”

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