Rolling Stone, hot news, and a Taibbi takedown

When Rolling Stone published Michael Hastings’ profile of General Stanley McChrystal, it quickly became, as David Carr, reporting for the New York Times, wrote, “a story that tilted the national conversation.” Unfortunately, the story wasn’t available anywhere. The Associated Press had done an early advance piece featuring highlights and excerpts. But that was it.

Time magazine and Politico both stole the Rolling Stone article and published a .pdf of the complete article on their websites. As Carr writes, “It was a clear violation of copyright and professional practice, and it amounted to taking money out of a competitor’s pocket.” Carr reports that both Politico and Time rationalized their theft by saying that they were responding to a “frenzy involving a significant national issue.”

Rolling Stone may have been clueless in not publishing the article on its website as soon as it was available, but let’s be clear: It was Rolling Stone‘s sole choice to publish the article or not.

Carr quotes Jim VandHei, co-founder and executive editor of Politico as saying, “Our reporters got the article from sources with no restrictions. It was being circulated and widely discussed among insiders, and our team felt readers should see what insiders were reading and reacting to.” VandHei is clearly clueless about stealing the intellectual property of others, but you can bet your ass he’d whine endlessly if it was a Poltico article that had been stolen.

A Time spokeswoman was just as clueless in an email to Carr: “Time.com posted a .pdf of the story to help separate rumor from fact at the moment this story of immense national interest was hitting fever pitch and the actual piece was not available. … It was a mistake; if we had it do over again [sic], we would only post a headline and an abstract.” Like every blogger on the planet.

In fact, at the same time the corporate media elite — the Associated Press, Advance Publications, Belo, Gannett, McClatchy, New York Times, the Washington Post, and the rest of the usual suspects (including Time) — were lined up submitting briefs of their own to uphold the “hot news doctrine.” Google and Twitter had filed briefs asking for it to be reversed in the flyonthewall.com case. Hot news was established in the 1918 International News Services v. Associated Press case where one wire service rewrote the other wire service’s news for its clients in other markets. Currently, the corporate media wants to use the hot news decision to restrict the efforts of aggregators and others. As Jeff Jarvis writes in his BuzzMachine blog:

“Hot news limitations should be repellant to journalists, even desperate ones, because every journalist builds on the facts revealed by others. It should further be repugnant to them as it constitutes a form of court-supervised prior restraint. Hot news restrictions would be suicidal to news organizations — even though they foolishly think it would protect them — because it would restrict everyone’s ability to spread the news via links and send journalists audience. Hot news should worry every citizen because the free flow of information is vital to a democracy.”

Jarvis is absolutely right about this. But he’s just as absolutely wrong when he goes on to infer that Propublica and Time were right to steal Rolling Stone‘s property solely because Rolling Stone didn’t properly exploit it. Propublica and Time would have been on solid ground had they elected to write their own stories based on the facts uncovered by Rolling Stone, but they were absolutely wrong to steal it in toto.

With that brief adventure off the tracks and into the deep weeds, the rest of what Jarvis writes in his hot news pieces is dead on.

Meanwhile, Matt Tiabbi writes an excellent — and well-deserved — takedown of Lara Logan for Rolling Stone. Logan, CBS News chief foreign correspondent, attempted to takedown Michael Hastings on CNN’s Reliable Sources, but failed pretty miserably. Taibbi’s entire article is spot-on, as usual, but here’s the nut: “Here’s CBS’s chief foreign correspondent saying out loud on TV that when the man running a war that’s killing thousands of young men and women every year steps on his own dick in front of a journalist, that journalist is supposed to eat the story so as not to embarrass the flag.” And this: “If there’s a lower form of life on the planet earth than a ‘reputable’ journalist protecting his territory, I haven’t seen it.”

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