"The View from Nowhere," intellectual property, and something called "value"

I hate to cite Mediaite, both because I dislike the word, and also because it’s de rigeur these days to either criticize or mock Dan Abrams and his site.

But here goes.

This story exemplifies something I started thinking about last night while listening to Jeff Jarvis’s Media Talk USA. In the Mediaite story, Rachel Sklar and Zeke Turner ask why no one gives Sy Hersh credit for breaking the story that the CIA had been running “death squads” and that Dick Cheney had been hiding them from Congress. Hersh had chatted about them in his odd, casual, not-quite-on-the-record way at the University of Minnesota four months ago. Now, when the NY Times “breaks” the story again, they don’t give any credit at all to Hersh.

What this brings to my mind is something called “value.” And I don’t think I mean monetary value when I say that. What I’m trying to get at is more along the lines of the value of a piece of news to a culture. Because clearly, Hersh isn’t going to be any wealthier if the Times agrees that yes, Hersh got there first.

In the Media Talk USA podcast, this came up with regard to judge Richard Posner’s suggestion that copyright protection be extended to newspapers online. Jarvis and his guests, Gawker‘s Nick Denton and the Wall Street Journal‘s Alan Murray, summed up Posner’s idea this way: put a 24-hour embargo on any piece of news reported in one outlet before any other outlet can pick it up or discuss it.

This is obviously ludicrous for several reasons (some of which Jarvis, Murray and Denton point out). Chief for me, though, is the idea that a single piece of news, in its simplest form (i.e., “event x occurred”), has almost no value anymore. They discuss this in regard to who reported Michael Jackson’s death first. They all agree that it was the gossip site TMZ that got there first, but they also note that most “mainstream media” outlets cited the Los Angeles Times instead. Now, these MSM were wrong to do that in exactly the same way that the NY Times was wrong for neglecting to mention Seymour Hersh. But here is why it doesn’t matter at the same time as it matters: I’m not going to start trusting TMZ for most information in the same way I’m going to trust the LA Times. Why not? Well, the LA Times has earned something over time, not just with one scoop. And for me, the LA Times is more likely to have the sort of information that I, as an over-educated slightly snobby urban dweller is going to want to read over time. Both outlets eventually added value to this one tidbit. For TMZ, it was intense, sensational detail. For the LA Times (and the NY Times and NPR and on and on) it was more meta-coverage: a detailed obituary; an analysis of his place in American culture; coverage of the coverage.

And this is why I think Posner’s idea is so laughable. A piece of news isn’t copyrightable. If something happened, it happened. Copyright is about creation. And the opinion and analysis that make up the added value of coverage of Michael Jackson’s death are more important to me than where the first word of it came from. That layer of news doesn’t seem to have much value anymore–and I think news outlets should cede it. Social networks, citizen journalism and other things we don’t know about yet are going to continue to tell us about events that occur. Events that occur shouldn’t be the stuff of news organizations anymore. Investigative journalism does. Scrabbling, cynical, ask-the-tough-questions journalism does, too.

I use the phrase “the view from nowhere” in the title of this post. It’s Jay Rosen‘s formulation of the attitude of objectivity that has been traditionally favored by the US MSM for 100+ years. And it’s the sort of attitude that works really well for event-that-occurred journalism. But wouldn’t there be much more value in analytical journalism in the case of events like this? Because while you can steal a fact, or even steal an idea, the act of creation–which is what copyright protects, after all–isn’t something that comes from readily-available news. Michael Jackson died. If TMZ didn’t get that, someone would have, and it wouldn’t have taken 20 minutes longer to do so. Protect investigative reports. Protect opinion and analysis pieces. But don’t protect “news.”

One last thought, as an adjunct to this. Don’t protect summaries of other people’s work on this, either. For example, I’ll tell you this: Frank Bruni was a bulimic when he was a kid. Did I just ruin this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine cover story for you? No. For the same reason that story, an excerpt from Bruni’s memoir, didn’t ruin the memoir. If you don’t know who Frank Bruni is, you won’t click (unless the phrase “baby bulimic” intrigues you regardless of the author). If you know who he is, but don’t care, you’ve absorbed a tiny piece of information about Bruni, and you probably wouldn’t have rushed to your newsstand on Sunday to buy a copy anyway. If you do care, you probably already clicked on the link, and I just brought the Times another reader rather than stole one from them.

And since this post is all about giving credit where credit is due, let me note that my views on intellectual property are strongly influenced by Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, and my views on the role of media in the national conversation of a representative democracy operate in the shadow of the life work of the late scholar James Carey.


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