On Wednesday, January 19, more than 200 union members stormed into a Mortgage Bankers Association conference in Washington, D.C., and held a guerrilla-style demonstration for about 10 minutes, protesting a home-builders' group for allegedly failing to create jobs with $900 million worth of tax breaks.
The commotion attracted a fair amount of media attention -- even CNBC gave it some airtime that afternoon. But what didn't make it into the news reports was how the union members gained access into the conference -- held at Washington's posh JW Marriott -- in the first place.
As it turns out, they were abetted by Mike Elk, a 24-year-old freelance labor journalist who secured press credentials to the event through his affiliation as a blogger with the Huffington Post, and who then passed those credentials off to one of the union organizers.
That move cost Elk, well, his unpaid gig as a Huffington Post blogger.
"I'm sorry to say we are revoking your access to our blog and ending our association," Peter Goodman, HuffPo's business editor, wrote to Elk in a Jan. 20 email obtained by The Cutline. "I appreciate that what happened yesterday was a poor decision on your part, one made on the spur of the moment, but it was simply over the line from an ethical standpoint and it would compromise our integrity to have you continue to write for us or represent us in any way."
Elk, who said he has contributed more than 100 posts since being recruited as a blogger in 2009 by the website's national editor, Nico Pitney, sees it differently.
"I never lied to anybody at any step in this process," he told The Cutline on Friday. "There is a tradition in labor journalism to be active participant journalists," he added, citing Michael Moore, who also blogs for HuffPo. "This is a tactic union organizers use all the time."
Of course, Elk was ostensibly there to cover the Mortgage Bankers Association event, not to disrupt it with a protest tactic. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a news organization that would condone one of its reporters doing what he did. But the incident does raise questions about the blurry lines of what counts as proper comportment for the Huffington Post's mashup of activist-citizen-journo contributors.
Indeed, it's not the first time one of HuffPo's unpaid contributors acted outside the realm of traditional journalistic standards. Most famously, there was Mayhill Fowler, the former HuffPo blogger who in the lead-up to the 2008 election taped a conversation with Bill Clinton without his knowledge that he was either speaking to a journalist or being recorded.
Fowler, of course, was allowed to keep writing until she eventually severed her own ties with the website because it refused to pay her for her posts. So, what was different about Elk's situation? He admits he didn't think he was doing anything wrong, since he was not a paid staff writer, nor was he compromising his ethics as a participant journalist, given the traditions of direct protest in the labor movement. Were the consequences therefore too severe?
"We are simply not OK with anyone accrediting themselves as a Huffington Post reporter without prior clearance from an editor," Goodman told The Cutline, noting that one of the site's staff reporters was also there to cover the event. (He ended up filing an item on the protest itself.) "The real sin here is that he essentially entered into a bogus contract in which he deceived an institution he's supposedly there to cover. It's really a very narrow issue. I wouldn't be OK with that from anybody. It makes no difference what kind of event or what institution we're dealing with we. We just simply can't have that."
Goodman added: "One of the key guidelines that's communicated to anyone who has regular access to our blogging platform is that you can't gain accreditation to an event without prior approval from an editor."
Which raises the question of how effectively HuffPo articulates those guidelines to its bloggers. "I was never asked to sign a contract of any type," said Elk. "Their editors offered me ... not much guidance on what I could and could not do as a Huffington Post blogger."
Mario Ruiz, a spokesman for the Huffington Post, said that when new bloggers come on board, they are directed to guidelines listed on a page in the website's back end. They include the following language: "As a HuffPost blogger, you must acquire an official letter of approval from a Huffington Post editor in order to cover an event for the Huffington Post. Without proper editorial approval, you must not identify yourself as a representative of HuffPost while attending events. To request a letter of approval, please email your editorial contact or XX@huffingtonpost.com."
Ruiz added: "We severed ties with Elk for the very simple reason that he abused a media accreditation by handing his pass to someone else, enabling them to disrupt an event he was supposedly there to cover."
For his part, Elk makes it clear that he has some additional gripes with the liberal-leaning news and commentary giant.
"It's a shame that the Huffington Post is abandoning the blogger's world of exposing evil through whatever means necessary and embracing the corporatist style of 'objective journalism,' " he said. "Goodman [who came to HuffPo from the New York Times last fall] and like-minded 'objective journalists' believe that they have the sole right to determine what is ethical even though their corporate driven media industry almost always favors big business and other elite voices."
In response to that, Goodman said: "We're not interested in pandering to any ideological position. We're interested in asking tough important questions and holding powerful institutions to account. And that's an objective that can only be served by us behaving transparently."