James Butler's Blog

Who's Scooping Who?

July 03, 2010 02:19

In an interview piece about U.S. General Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone magazine it was revealed that the good General had a less-than-stellar opinion of some of his superiors. I suppose it is a good thing that this perspective was brought to light, and disciplinary action taken, but that is not the focus of this post.

Before Rolling Stone had a chance to get the print version into the hands of eager readers, and prior to their posting the article on their own website, the news was broken by several unrelated web news entities, including Gawker.com and NYTimes.com.

Without knowing any of the circumstances that contributed to the decisions by these and other news resources to publish the Rolling Stone story, it concerns me that, in the rush to publish the info, Gawker and the New York Times and the rest may have crossed an ethical, and possibly a legal line.

Rolling Stone paid for the development of the story. They worked for quite some time to collect their information, to craft the text and to polish it and prepare it for public viewing. It seems to be an important story containing news revealed exclusively to them. It's just the type of story that pushes a lot of interest toward whoever releases it first. It seems certain that Rolling Stone was counting on that interest to help them recoup some of the costs of preparing the article, and to benefit their organization in other ways.

Those benefits, for the most part, were instead snagged by the unrelated news resources when they "scooped" Rolling Stone and published Rolling Stone's story before Rolling Stone was able to.

It is possible that discussions were had, and Rolling Stone agreed to relieve the others of liability because Rolling Stone was not planning any early release of the story and it seemed obvious that someone was going to put it online, so it might as well be a relatively-controlled "leak". But any scenario where Rolling Stone approves of the preemption sounds silly, to me, given the stakes.

In this blogger's opinion, the third party online news resources that "scooped" Rolling Stone committed various levels of unethical acts, and materially harmed Rolling Stone in the process.

Which site posted this info first is not known to me, but whoever it was has committed the crime of knowingly publishing purloined, proprietary information. This may be a good opportunity to test traditional intellectual property theft law, as whoever kicked things off was clearly in the wrong, legally.

But publishers like the New York Times committed even more heinous acts, because (1) they understood the development costs and (2) they stole the thunder for themselves at the expense of a direct competitor. This was not only a debatably illegal act for them to have engaged in, but it presents a clear violation of ethical rules that demand a more mature sense of fair play.

If the Washington Post had decided not to immediately send out cables to all the news networks with their article about the Watergate Papers, would the Daily News have been justified in publishing the work of Woodward and Bernstein before the next edition of the Post came out, if the finished Post article had been passed to them under the table?

I think not. Despite the gravity of the information, the Daily News would be ethically obligated to respect the Post's publication timeline and their ownership of the intellectual property.

I understand the desire to preemptively publish, and I can certainly see how the timing of the releases in this case benefited the Obama administration by allowing it to address and resolve the issue prior to the G20 summit instead of dealing with it coming out during the summit.

I maintain that the imbalance of benefit the action caused Rolling Stone needs to be corrected if the ethical lapses are to be forgiven. 



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