The Baltimore Sun cut ties with their conservative blog after learning of the blog's potential unethical behavior, a Sun spokesperson said Monday.
"The Baltimore Sun's editorial independence is among our most fundamental values and we have a strict separation between advertising and the content we produce," Sun Director of Marketing Renee Mutchnik told Media Matters in a statement explaining the paper's separation from the bloggers.
Late last year the Sun inked a deal with the conservative blog Red Maryland to provide content for baltimoresun.com as well as a weekly op-ed page in the paper's print edition. In a November op-ed, Red Maryland's Mark Newgent explained that their blog was "the premiere source for conservative news and opinion in Maryland" and that he and his colleagues would now have "the opportunity to advance conservative, limited government ideas to a larger audience." While the bloggers would continue to operate their private blog, they would also write content for a Red Maryland blog on the Sun's website.
But questions over the bloggers' ethical behavior surfaced last week when a rival conservative blogger posted what he claimed was an email he received from friends outlining a pitch from Red Maryland urging Republican candidates to advertise on the bloggers' radio show to "get the message out to like-minded conservatives in your upcoming primary election." The email claimed that Red Maryland would use all "our platforms at BaltimoreSun.com, RedMaryland.com, and the Red Maryland network" to introduce candidates to the public, suggesting that candidates who paid for the ads could also expect favorable coverage from the bloggers in their roles as paid contributors to the Sun.
Red Maryland did not dispute the authenticity of the email but denied the conservative rival's pay-to-play accusation in a March 7 blog post on their original website, stating that they had provided platforms to candidates since the site's founding to give these candidates media attention and statewide audiences. However, Red Maryland also formally acknowledged that Newgent, who wrote for both Red Maryland's original site and in the Sun, has been paid by Larry Hogan, a Republican gubernatorial candidate Red Maryland has endorsed:
First, we've never claimed to be "objective." We wear our biases openly on our sleeve, always have. You've always known where Red Maryland was coming from. Newgent has repeatedly disclosed his work for Change Maryland and the Hogan for Governor Campaign. He has performed research work for both organizations. Hardly a "political favor."
That same day, the Sun terminated their relationship with Red Maryland. In an email response to Media Matters, Sun Director of Marketing Mutchnik explained that the paper learned of the advertising solicitation and Newgent's paid research work "late last week" and "formally ended our freelance relationship with Red Maryland" on March 7. "We also strive to avoid any conflicts of interest or the appearance of any conflicts among our staff and freelancers," Mutchnik said.
In each of the articles Red Maryland staff has written this year that mention Larry Hogan, including at least two op-eds in the Sun's print edition and three blog posts on the Baltimore Sun sanctioned blog, the authors do disclose Red Maryland's endorsement of Hogan for governor. But Newgent's receipt of payment for work he was doing with Hogan's organization, Change Maryland, or the Hogan campaign was never mentioned. This information was also not disclosed in Red Maryland's announcement that they were supporting Hogan in the governor's race.
Since the start of Red Maryland's relationship with the Sun questions arose about the disclosure standards required by the paper given Newgent's ties to several right-wing organizations such as the Heartland Institute. In addition, the paper allowed the Red Maryland bloggers to publish inaccurate stories in print and online.