Its time for bloggers to decide exactly what kind of role they want to play in the free market of information and opinion.
The blogging community has often given the impression that they are totally separate from professional journalists and in some sense not subject to their ethical standards.
Fiercely independent, often unpaid, answering to no editor, except perhaps their Internet audience, bloggers are writing for their own satisfaction or to share their views with family, friends and anyone who happens to stumble across their dispatches in cyberspace.
Many bloggers, through their specialized knowledge, contacts and writing style have attracted substantial audiences. In some cases, they wield no small amount of influence with their following.
They often like to imply that because they are beholden to no editor or publisher, their work is more honest and pure than that of the poor wretches who report and write for a living.
But now they have discovered theyre fair game for manipulation by rich corporations who have always been ready to throw around money to influence journalists with all sorts of blandishments, dinners, sports events, travel junkets and expensive high-tech toys.
Thats why its not surprising to read Steven Vaughan-Nichols columndisclosing that a number of bloggers who write about Microsoft and its products received early Christmas gifts of Acer Ferrari laptops with a retail value of $2,299.
Those laptops were delivered through the courtesy of none other than Microsoft.
The idea was to give these bloggers a chance to test Windows Vista on the latest top-of-the-line hardware, with the hopes that they will be impressed enough to say nice things about Vista.
There is nothing wrong with temporarily lending writers hardware to test the latest software. This is done all the time by product reviewers and by the testing labs operated by many print and online publishers.
But this is done with the understanding that all the hardware and the software must be returned. If the reviewers have a reason to keep the products, then they must pay for them.
But bloggers who accept such hardware with no obligation to return it have to know that they are compromising their objectivity and honesty. Of course the audience will be none the wiser if the blogger never discloses that he or she accepted a free laptop as an inducement to write a product review.
Thats why bloggers as well as journalists have an obligation either to refuse such handouts, or if they do accept them to disclose it to readers so that they can judge whether or not their articles are objective enough to be believed.
Most media companies enforce rules that the writers that they employ are not allowed to accept any such gifts. Many ban writers from accepting so much as a free meal or taxi fare.
They enforce these bans because even the smallest gift carries with it the assumption that "Whose bread I eat—his song I sing."