There's been much abuzz this week over the issue of embargoes, wherein a media outlet (whether print, television, online or telegraph) tacitly or explicitly agrees to withhold certain information - for example, a review or an interview - until a specified date. Breaking the embargo (or even bending the embargo) has, in recent years, been more of an issue as some outlets have been more and more willing to ignore the specified dates.
For most of the week, the embargo swirled around a battle between the movie studio Fox and online journalists, who believed that Fox had unfairly targeted them - denying them access to advance screenings of films - in an effort to clamp down on embargo breaking. David Poland wrote about this extensively earlier this week, offering suggestions on how Fox could make the whole screening process more uniform and, ultimately, more fair for critics, and by today it seemed that Fox and the rebel critics in Chicago who launched the intifada had reached a kind of quiet peace.
Later, the issue was the new Harry Potter book and the decision of two major media outlets - the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times - to bust embargoes and review the film in the days before the release of the final book in the series.
On Keith Olbermann's Countdown program, Sun book reviewer Mary Carole McCauley made the curious claim that she didn't really break the embargo, see, because she (and the Sun) never agreed to the embargo in the first place. They got their copy when someone's order was filled in advance in error. Since they didn't get a copy from the publisher and since they hadn't agreed to the publisher's embargo, the Sun felt no qualms about running the review a day or two early.
Potter author JK Rowling was upset:
I am staggered that some American newspapers have decided to publish purported spoilers in the form of reviews in complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children, who wanted to reach Harry’s final destination by themselves, in their own time. I am incredibly grateful to all those newspapers, booksellers and others who have chosen not to attempt to spoil Harry’s last adventure for fans.
The Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar (and self-proclaimed Potter geek) was outraged:
What is your problem, New York Times? No WMD rumors to plaster on the front page, no Jayson Blair to make things up for posterity, no Alessandra Stanley to mangle TV show names? I'm mad so I'm lashing out, but come on: How on earth could you run a review of the last Harry Potter? To do so, you had to break an industry-wise embargo — and not just any embargo, an embargo that is almost tantamount to a public trust at this point, given the worldwide hype about Harry Potter and the excitement and intense emotion generated by — finally — the end to this epic series.
But, hey, you're the New York Times, boldly going etc. Why should you care about honoring a book that's been over a decade in the making just for the sake of getting a two-day jump on the competish? You've done it before, with Bob Woodward and Carly Fiorina, buying both books at some super-secret bookstore where they apparently have no qualms about selling embargoed books to customers who have no qualms about buying them and then writing about them in the paper of record in defiance of millions of wide-eyed and breathless readers. Editor & Publisher reports that "the Times explained that it bought a copy in a New York City store" — just like when they scooped WaPo on Woodward's embargoed book and spilled the beans on HP CEO Fiorina's memoir. That was last October; then I asked, rhetorically: "Where is this bookstore and are they stocking the next Harry Potter?" Well, I guess we have our answer.
But the most ridiculous item in this saga came today, in the increasingly more woeful (at least from a columnist perspective) Los Angeles Times, this time from "media columnist" Tim Rutten who decided to boil down the kerfuffle into this hoary chestnut:
Fair enough. (Rowling)'s the author, and she's entitled. The fact of the matter is, though, that both Kakutani and the Sun's Mary Carole McCauley are accomplished critics whose reviews scrupulously avoided giving away anything that could be considered a plot spoiler. Even the most passionate Potterites could read their pieces without fear of compromising their pleasure in this new book.
So what's the fuss really about?
Like most these days, it's about money.
Well, thank God, Rutten has gotten to the gist of the matter - the fact that it's all about money. But wait, exactly whose money is Rutten talking about?:
Here it's necessary to distinguish between the newspaper critics and the cyber crooks, who may have posted sections of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" on the Web. That's theft, and if we don't protect the intellectual property of even fabulously wealthy creative people like Rowling, they'll have less and less incentive to produce the things that entertain and delight us. Her publishers are right to go after these looters with laptops with every lawyer they hire.
Embargoes on reviews and discussions are another matter. All the outrage surrounding this particular book notwithstanding, contemporary publishers impose these blackouts not in the interest of readers but to protect the carefully planned publicity campaigns they create for books on which they have advanced large sums of money.
This is the economic imperative that leads publishers to withhold the contents of even nonfiction manuscripts that contain news that the public has a vital interest in knowing.
It's also why newspapers, including this one, routinely break those embargoes without any pang of conscience. Our first and most compelling obligation is to our readers' right to know and not to the commercial interests of publishers.
There you have it in a nutshell. It's about the money that the publisher might lose. Why newspapers are brave defenders of the "right to know! Never mind all that clamor from media outlets about a federal shield law, never mind all that came to light in the Valerie Plame affair over reporters' constant withholding of key facts so that they could continue to court administration sources. The public doesn't need to know who leaked a CIA agent's identity! They need to get a review of the new Harry Potter book!
It's their fucking right!
And what is missing from Rutten's miserable excuse of a column? How about any acknowledgment that the Baltimore Sun is, like the Times, owned by the Tribune Company?
But worse is Rutten's fact-less assertion that those upset by the breaking of the embargo should really be upset with the publisher. After all, he says, the embargo is all about the publisher's desire to enhance profits.
But what of the newspapers? Could it possibly be that the Sun and the Times broke the embargo to enhance their sales? To drive traffic to their websites? To garner headlines?
Rutten's right, it is about money. But it's not the publisher's money at stake (does anyone really think that the reviews affect the sales of Harry Freaking Potter), it's the dwindling reach and sales of newspapers. Rutten knows better, but fails to mention that the papers, in having a "get", an exclusive, have a monetary stake. It's dishonest reporting and he should know it.
And after a series of faulty media reports by the LA Times on Michael Moore, it's clear that the paper, already a bit of a laughing stock in Los Angeles, needs to keep columnists like Robert Scheer and Al Martinez and rid themselves of the likes of Tim Rutten.