California campaigns must report paying bloggers

September 20, 2013
Yep, you have to report that, too (AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRYADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
Yep, you have to report that, too (AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRYADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

California political campaigns must disclose specific details of any payments they make in exchange for positive coverage on blogs, under a new rule issued Thursday by the state’s campaign finance watchdog.

The rules, approved by the Fair Political Practices Commission, require campaigns to report any payment they make that results in editorial content, whether it’s a positive item touting a candidate or a negative item slamming a rival.

Campaigns will have to use a code to categorize content payments. That code will be distinct from a payment made for an advertisement on a blog, so that voters can distinguish between paid content and regular advertising. The campaigns will also have to disclose where the content they paid for has appeared by naming the specific blog or news outlet.

But campaigns don’t have to report that they have paid for content if the blogger him- or herself discloses the payment. That is, if a blog post comes with a disclosure — “The author was paid by the Committee to Re-Elect Mayor Jane Doe” — the campaign can report the expenditure as an ad.

The change comes three years after Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman paid several bloggers for content, said Heather Rowan, the FPPC attorney who wrote the new regulation.

“We had a couple of people running blogs, and the assumption was they were neutral parties. And as time went on, unfortunately after the election, people found out the content had been paid for by particular campaigns,” Rowan said. “The average consumer would assume neutrality when reading something that looks like a news story.”

Campaigns won’t have to disclose anything new about bloggers they pay as consultants.

The new rule had been originally proposed by Ann Ravel, the commission’s outgoing chairwoman. Ravel has been appointed by President Obama to take a seat on the Federal Election Commission; her nomination won unanimous approval from the Senate Rules Committee earlier this week. She and Republican nominee Lee Goodman are likely to sail to confirmation when the full Senate takes up their nominations.

Ravel had initially proposed requiring immediate disclosure by the bloggers themselves. But after objections from Internet privacy and free speech advocates, the commission shifted the reporting burden to the campaigns.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · September 20, 2013