Dana Milbank Stamps His Foot at the Unfairness of Google

In a column attacking Google and other “accused newspaper industry killers,” the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank (5/7/09) doesn’t present much of an argument for why newspapers are dying–but he provides an excellent example of why journalism like his deserves to die.

[Marissa] Mayer, who oversees Google News, explained how “Google is doing its part” to preserve journalism–by keeping the lion’s share of ad revenue before directing readers to newspaper sites. “Google News and Google search provide a valuable service to online newspapers specifically by sending interested readers to their sites,” she said.

Oh? Let’s plug in “Senate Commerce Committee ‘Future of Journalism’ hearing” into Google News and see what comes up. After a link to a wire story, the second headline is “Google‘s Mayer to Dispense Advice to Newspapers at Senate Hearing.”

One obvious feature of journalism that’s worth preserving is that it makes sense, which this passage clearly does not. What is the relevance of the fact that a headline about Google comes up when you do a Google News search on a hearing whose most newsworthy aspects include a Google executive’s testimony? It seems unlikely that Milbank is advancing a conspiracy theory that Google is rigging its search results to get more publicity for itself, because he plainly thinks Mayer’s testimony was newsworthy as well.

Milbank instead seems to be saying that this link turning up somehow disproves Mayer’s contention that Google News provides as “valuable service to online newspapers”–but how does it disprove this, exactly? The link goes to a Wall Street Journal blog post–and the Journal is presumably happy to have Google sending people to it, because the Journal gets paid every time someone sees the ad sitting next to the post.

The one intelligible point that Milbank makes here is his complaint that Google is “keeping the lion’s share of ad revenue before directing readers to newspaper sites.” Yes, it does–it does keep most of the revenue that it gets for selling ads on its own website, revenue that would not exist if Google did not exist. That’s wrong, in the eyes of Milbank and other self-pitying newspaper pundits, because Google is getting paid to find things that belong to newspapers. It’s not fair! You can almost hear Milbank’s foot stamping the floor.

This is unpersuasive on a few counts. For one thing, quoting newspaper headlines and a minimal amount of text, as Google does, is plainly fair use–anyone has the right to do this without asking the newspaper owner’s permission or paying them anything. FAIR often quotes Milbank’s copy–generally to point out how inaccurate, misleading or servilely devoted to power it is–and we’re not about to start paying him for the privilege. Google has no more obligation to pay newspapers for directing Internet users to their stories than tour guides have to pay the owners of the landmark buildings they point out. Or, for that matter, than newspapers are required to pay newsmakers for creating the events that newspapers profit from reporting.

But Google, as we’ve pointed out before, does not rely on what would seem to be a strong fair use claim; it allows newspapers to opt out of Google News by adding a simple line of code to their websites. If the Washington Post thinks it’s being killed by Google News, it can immediately stop Google News from directing readers to it. Clearly, the Post doesn’t want to do that–it wants Google to keep sending readers to the it, and it wants Google to send it a great big check as well. That’s not the way the capitalist system works, but you can understand why Dana Milbank wishes it were.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.