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April 5, 2011

The teetering unsteadiness of Bill Keller’s moral high ground
Posted by Patrick at 11:39 AM * 36 comments

The consistently interesting zunguzungu takes note of the ongoing slapfight between Arianna Huffington and New York Times editor-in-chief Bill Keller, who has now asserted that “in Somalia” what the Huffington Post does “would be called piracy.”

What’s interesting about this has nothing to do with the well-documented failings of the Huffington Post (celebrity-penned anti-vaccine nonsense; a business model that depends on lots of writers working for free) or of the New York Times (too many examples to list; start with the runup to the invasion of Iraq). The squabble between Keller and Huffington, and particularly Keller’s latest rhetorical turn, would be striking if both publications were three times better than they are, or three times worse. Zunguzungu observes:

The more you talk about piracy, it seems to me, the more you bump into the uncomfortable fact that journalism is only distinguishable from word-piracy because, and to the extent that, we arbitrarily decide that it is. We have social conventions that determine what is and isn’t okay to say and steal, and how to do so—institutional rules defining the difference between socially useful activities and socially un-useful activities—but while those conventions are under particular stress right now (file this under “the internet”) they were also never quite as stable as we might have liked to think they were. Thi’ is not to say that they aren’t necessary, useful, and worth retaining, of course. They just aren’t written in stone, nor were they received from on high; they are a contingent function of what it is that we expect “the press” to do as part of the social function they fulfill. Which is why, ultimately, the kind of society that we believe “good journalism” will serve will be the determinant of what standards we use in defining what is good in journalism.

That line of thinking, however, would take the conversation in a different direction than either Keller or Huffington want it to go. This is because they are not, a such, interested in the social function of “the press”—for which, see Jay Rosen’s manifesto—but rather, in the business of profiting from their activities. This should not surprise us, but neither should it escape our notice: their job is to make information commodities, to secure ownership of them, and then find some way to sell them. “Real Journalism” talk, in that context, is just market fetishizing, a way of mystifying the work of social production that makes “news” possible, so that it can appear to be the original creation of whoever is selling it to you. Never mind all the different people whose unpaid contributions made the production of the story possible (the original tipoff, unquoted sources, quoted subjects, the reference works consulted, etc); they will not be paid or credited for intellectual labor, because of the magic thing that happens when the story has been published: having become news, it will subsequently be considered the sole production of the New York Times or whoever. And if Arianna Huffington steals it, now, she becomes indistinguishable from a Somali pirate. Once we have decided where ownership of information begins—whose intellectual labor counts and whose does not—then we can proceed to sell it.

Until 1891, American copyright law deemed the work of non-Americans to be in the public domain, which is certainly one way to jump-start an indigenous publishing industry into profitability. It does seem that, often, the people we condemn as “pirates” turn out to be simply those who got into the game just a little bit later than the original players.
Comments on The teetering unsteadiness of Bill Keller's moral high ground:
#1 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 01:31 PM:

It's a kind of nth-degree iteration of the Tragedy of the Commons*, isn't it? Huffington and Keller have been sending their journalists to graze on the words we all produce for free, but now with the internet we're blogging what we used to just say, and demanding attribution when they quote it. So what now is their profit model, except to stab each other in the back?

There's extra irony that Keller is involved, what with the new NYT paywall (which, incidentally, blocks me from TNH's latest Particle).

Or perhaps this is all just the flu talking.
* Whose expression in this context on this blog, I must emphasize, was originally mine, you pirate†
† iz joke.

#2 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 02:00 PM:

FYI, my pre-existing NYT login still gets me to Teresa's Particle. If there's a paywall, I haven't run up against it yet.

#3 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 02:06 PM:

Lee@2, the paywall kicks in after 20 articles (per month). Referrals from Twitter don't count against the limit.

If the NYT had deployed the buzzword "freemium" to characterize their new policy, the reception on the net might have been different. Then again, they'd still have a complicated pricing model, so maybe not.

#4 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 02:12 PM:

The Particle works now, though I haven't entered any kind of credentials into the NYT site since I tried a couple of hours ago. No idea why.

#5 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 02:31 PM:

It still doesn't work for me. Hrmph.

#6 ::: Seth Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 05:38 PM:

Mac überblogger John Gruber rips the NYT, not for putting up a paywall, but for putting up a paywall with byzantine pricing rules.

#7 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 05:49 PM:

1) I am somehow reminded of the works of one W. Disney, displaying the Public Domain in beautiful animated glory - whose descendants are working very hard to lock down the end of the Public Domain at 1933 (for some reason I can't quite understand).

2) re: the coda: I still have several Penguins on my shelves clearly marked "This edition not for sale in the U.S." When I eventually found out why...

#8 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 06:37 PM:

Between Huffington and Keller, the big question is: Which do the lurkers support in e-mail?

#9 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 07:49 PM:

The lurkers prefer Slashdot. heh.

#10 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 08:32 PM:

abi @4, I suppose it's appropriate that things called Particles be unpredictably observable or non-observable.

#11 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 11:01 PM:

"In Somalia, this would be called piracy."

Wha...? Isn't Somalia one of the last places one would expect to find the label "piracy" being tossed hyperbolically about?

#12 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2011, 11:36 PM:

The link keeps asking for me to log in, which I am not going to do. If I go google for New York Times and hit the link, I get in that I'm already logged in with my name, etc.

I've already deleted their bookmark in my system. I have enough news sources that NYT is minor. I do glance at their headlines every couple of days, but I ain't paying for nuffin.

#13 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 12:02 AM:

In Somalia they have a very simple checklist for piracy/not piracy.

1) Automatic weapons involved? Yes/no.

If yes, piracy. If no, not piracy.

#14 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 02:01 AM:

Jim@13 - Yarrr, if there be cutlasses, it's still piracy!

I'm getting frustrated by the NYT paywall - it's a new month, so I haven't gotten close to my month's quota, and I've been wondering whether the URLs pointing to the NYT from news-aggregator sites all count against it or not. Meanwhile, I've moved the NYT down my bookmark list and the local papers, LA Times, and Washington Post father up, but I liked the NYT better.

#15 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 02:41 AM:

The new NYT login wall led me to install the bugmenot addon for Firefox. So far so good.

It seems to me that zunguzungu fails to make the point that while aggregation (either of the journalistic or bloggish variety) is producing something valuable and original, even when it consists primarily of reorganizing source material. Curating information is a needed service.

#16 ::: Zelda ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 06:27 AM:

Mary Dell @11:
Quite so. Plus I usually toss things about parabolically instead.

#17 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 07:48 AM:

Though I have a NYTimes account--an ancient one from forever ago, now married to my subscriber account (I take the paper on the weekends)--I can't get to Teresa's particle without logging in . . . even if I've just been on NYTimes site. Weird.

#18 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 07:59 AM:

Bill Stewart: For seven years there were long periods when I did not go out without a cutlass in my belt. I assure you that I have never been a pirate.

#19 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 09:00 AM:

In Somalia some of the "pirating" has been attempts to prevent Europeans from dumping toxic wastes in Somali waters; that doesn't get much press, though.

#20 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 10:18 AM:

Melissa Singer #17: Ditto.

Re: the latest Koch Brothers particles, I'm starting to hear Vernor Vinge's creepy little rhyme:

Earth Bonds will keep you all your days
But Swiss gold gives off gamma rays

#21 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 10:26 AM:

Fragano @18, that's what you would say, isn't it?


#22 ::: Ken ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 11:01 AM:

Ah, yes, the high professional standards of the American journalistic profession. From Fred Clark's slacktivist blog, the latest in his Left Behind deconstruction:

We have been told all along that Cameron "Buck" Williams is the apotheosis of contemporary American journalism, and here we see that is true. Given the opportunity to tell the truth, to expose secretive financial dealings and the manipulative abuse of power for evil purposes, Buck chooses instead to keep silent because speaking up might put at risk the access to power he now enjoys.

(Does this count as piracy on my part, or fair use?)

#23 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 12:39 PM:

If I understand the nyT decisions correctly, you can access without a subscription their articles via social sites, for instance from FB (don't know about this, since I don't FB). Also from coming to an article via a link on an aggregator site, which would be, one would think, huffpoo -- ooops, that really was a typo, but maybe it should be let stand?. Maybe, also from google.

I received a 'free' subsciption via the Lincoln automotive corp that was offered first via e-mail (how did Lincoln get my e-mail? presumably from my registration at the nyT ... which wasn't to be shared evah!) ... and then the offer was all over the nyT online at least a day later, good until March 27th -- 28th was the day the paywall went into effect. I took the Lincoln offer. Everything's just as it always was. The spouse didn't bother, and now he's run up against his limit because we both read the "Disunion" columns faithfully and they are daily.

There's a FAQ on the online site that tells you what is what and you all may understand it better than I do. But you can still browse the sections with their captions online. You just cannot access the full story.

I'll never give them my money because they've never apologized for what they did to help the Iraq invasion. That was the last straw.

I trust the UK Guardian and the BBC anyway, far more. Also, the UK Guardian is expanding its U.S. - NY coverage greatly, as they announced last week.

Love, c.

#24 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 01:27 PM:

I see one of those irregular verbs again.

You are a pirate
They are engaged in intellectual property theft
I have a bold paradigm-busting new business model

#25 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 02:38 PM:

zunguzungu wrote: "[...] This is because they are not, a such, interested in the social function of “the press”—for which, see Jay Rosen’s manifesto—but rather, in the business of profiting from their activities. [...]"

I've noticed Duncan Black on multiple occasions wondering aloud about what they might be imagining the "social function of the press" to be, and I'm sure that both Keller and Huffington have, at some point since the emergence of the Internet as the dominant communication medium for analysis of news and current information, been confronted with a bout of solitude in a dimly lit room with only a bottle of whiskey and the time to cogitate deeply on the matter of What The *Fnord* They Are Doing With Themselves And Why They Are Doing It.

Surely, they must have some germ of an idea.

It may not be the force that drives them to get out of bed every morning, but surely they must have some idea what they are all about. They may not understand how the Internet works, but it's impossible they haven't noticed What It Does. It puts mindless machines in the role of connecting people browsing for information to the people who have information to make available, and it's maddeningly incapable of forgetting even the most trivial of things, much less the really important things that must not ever be remembered according to the current cultural hegemony.

In the face of that, they insist on fighting the machines and their terrifying capacity for remembering everything by operating corporations of human computers, all struggling like John Henry with their steam-drills each in their own personal Big Bend tunnels, in a futile attempt to retain control of the communication of news and information critical in the policymaking process.

I really believe that, when they think about the social function of the news at all, they do not think of it the way Jay Rosen would want them to think of it. I believe they think of their social function quite frankly as defending the traditional news and analysis networks that arose before the appearance of the Internet from incursion by what they deem to be a foreign culture. Their principle social concern is the defense of the cultural hegemony. The sweet, sweet lucre they receive in compensation for their labors certainly helps keep them from thinking about it very much, but when they do think about it, this is what they believe.

It's plainly visible in everything they do.

#26 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 04:32 PM:

David Harmon (#20): I think that's from David Brin's Earth rather than from any Vinge.

#27 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 04:38 PM:

Mashable has an interesting note about the NYT paywall.

Apparently a simple edit of the URL is sufficient to bypass it (in addition to all of the other trivial methods available).

#28 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 06:15 PM:

Christopher Davis #26: I had thought it was from the immediately-post Peace War story... but now I'm reconsidering. Not Brin either though, not I think it's from Bruce Sterling's Islands In the Net. Still creepy, but damn, that's good incluing!

#29 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 07:01 PM:

Christopher Davis, David Harmon.

It's definitely from Brin's Earth.

#30 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 08:54 PM:

#24: You win one (1) Internet, suitable for framing.

As for me, I will be violating your copyright shortly.

#31 ::: Pete Darby ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2011, 08:08 AM:

I thought it was:

I research
You plagiarize
They pirate.

#32 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2011, 08:45 AM:

What an excellent blog that is, full of fascinating stuff and new angles. Thank you for drawing my attention to it -- I especially liked the piece about taking positions on Libya.

#33 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2011, 12:16 PM:

Tom Lehrer said it best:

Let no one else's work evade your eyes
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
So don't shade your eyes
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
Only be sure always to call it please "research"

#34 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2011, 01:22 PM:

"Until 1891, American copyright law deemed the work of non-Americans to be in the public domain..."

Which is why The Pirates of Penzance opened in New York simultaneously with its UK opening. After the debacle of the HMS Pinafore shows (where the British touring company met with audiences who had "seen" it already, or at least pirated semi-accurate versions), Gilbert & Sullivan did not want to chance missing out on what turned out to be one of their most lucrative and successful properties.

The name of Pirates is not by chance, either. Even back then, authors got royally miffed when people just took their properties, legal or not.

On the topic of journalism, what Michael Totten does in journalism. That's the guy who wondered, "what's really going on in Iraq?" and went, on his own dime, to go find out. His stories are refreshingly free of "framing," which is where the so-called reporter has a mental template in place before the story is researched, and he or she looks for evidence to support that framework. Totten just writes about what he sees on his trips.

What a large portion of the various media are doing is not journalism. It's lazy, self-reinforcing claptrap. Honestly, I don't care that it's biased (all media are biased; you can't be human and not be biased), I care that it's bad. The New York Times used to be the gold standard of journalism, but they've slipped badly in the last couple of decades. And I haven't seen much that's improved elsewhere.

#35 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2011, 01:35 PM:

what's the interest rate on earth bonds?

#36 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2011, 02:47 PM:

Eirk: I think you get a better return on rare earth bonds.

There are significant penalties for breaking bonds in the U, and Pu Series.

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