It was a story that seemed almost unbelievable last week. Union workers were protesting a mortgage bank conference at a posh D.C. hotel, when they suddenly overwhelmed security guards and barged into the meeting much to the bewilderment of the bankers. The lively protest lasted for 10 minutes until more security arrived. But as it turns out, the group had some inside help: a blogger from the Huffington Post.
That blogger has now been let go. But he's having a hard time understanding why due to his view of journalistic integrity.
The controversy focuses on 24-year-old freelance labor journalist Mike Elk. Elk secured press credentials to the event through his affiliation with HuffPo. But it's what he did next that many say compromised his journalistic integrity. Instead of keeping his credentials to himself, Elk passed them on to one of the union organizers. By using those credentials, the protesters were able to gain access to the conference.
"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 January 20 email obtained by Yahoo! News's 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's been with HuffPo since 2009 in an unpaid capacity, disagrees. "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, and as an example cited Michael Moore. "This is a tactic union organizers use all the time."
The entire story worries NewsBusters writer Lachlan Markay, but it's the reference to Moore that has him most concerned. "Perhaps Elk's problem has to do with his invocation of Michael Moore and union organizers as exemplars of journalistic integrity," he writes.
Cutline author Joe Pompeo agrees that Elk crossed the line:
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.
The story has set off a war of words between Goodman and Elk. Goodman says Elk broke HuffPo's rules by not getting permission to cover the event first, while Elk says the "rules" are not clear and that HuffPo is "embracing the corporatist style of 'objective journalism."
"We are simply not OK with anyone accrediting themselves as a Huffington Post reporter without prior clearance from an editor," Goodman told The Cutline. "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."
When Elk responded he didn't receive much guidance, HuffPo spokesman Mario Ruiz cited a portion of the site's guidelines located on an employee-only portion of the site that instructed writers to garner pre-approval.
"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," Ruiz told The Cutline.
But its Elk's response that raises serious questions. In an attempt to slam the website, Elk took the odd approach of accusing HuffPo of having stiff view of journalistic integrity.
"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." [Emphasis added]
Translation: bloggers shouldn't be held to the same journalistic integrity standards as "regular" writers. It's a notion Goodman quickly dismissed.
"We're not interested in pandering to any ideological position," he said. "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."
The liberal website The Daily Kos came out in support of Elk, treating him as a hero of sorts. It ran its own version of Elk's grievance last week under the headline, "H-Post Editor Bows to Bankers and CUTS TIES to Reporter Who Helped Expose Them."
Seemingly emboldened by the support he's received, Elk used his Twitter account to discuss a possible lawsuit against HuffPo filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board:
Elk is not the same HuffPo reporter who wrote a story on the original union incident referenced by The Blaze last week.
Editor's note: The headline of this story was changed from "fired" to "let go." Huffington Post bloggers are not paid and not considered employees. Thus, they cannot technically be fired.
In an e-mail to The Blaze, Mike Elk clarified that he is not planning on suing HuffPo. Rather, his tweets referenced the possibility of filling a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, "which investigates unfair labor practice allegations made by employees."
Elk admits he "was not employed by the Huffington Post." However, he thinks there could be a case made that he was a new "hybrid of an employee" -- a worker that answers to one employer but gets paid through others. He says he received forms of compensation through other organizations as a result of his HuffPo blogging.
"This is an increasingly worrisome trend in journalism as more and more journalists get paid by outside funders to write for publications," he writes in his e-mail. "I am considering using the NLRB process in order to determine what are the rights of employees in this situation."
When asked what he would do if the NLRB ruled in his favor, he was adamant that he is not seeking a lawsuit.