WaPo Argues: Censor Blog for Sending Us Readers

Quipping that “usually newspapers are big defenders of free speech, but not the Washington Post,” economic reporting critic Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 8/2/09) takes down the paper’s recent piece giving over “nearly 2,000 words to complain that a website had ripped off” one reporter’s story.

Careful to say that “the problem was not that the website had plagiarized the piece”–indeed, the “story was credited and even linked to by the website, which was a major source of readers for the original article”–Baker tells us that the Post “is upset that the website may have made money off his work, because it sells ads based on viewership.”

The Post “wants ‘news organizations’ to have the right to sue others that use their work without permission and profit from it”–even though, as Baker writes, “if people opt to read the piece on another website rather than the Post, then there must be some reason. Obviously they prefer something about this alternative venue”:

If the protectionist measure advocated in this piece succeeded in shutting down the competition, then there would be a clear loss to readers. This loss would likely dwarf the loss to consumers that the Post routinely whines about so loudly when anyone suggests a tariff on imports or any other barrier to trade. After all, those forms of protection rarely add more than 10-15 percent to the price of a product. In this case, the Post‘s proposal may make the product unavailable altogether. Yet again, we see that protectionism is just fine with “free traders.” The only issue is who is being protected.

Finally, let’s consider what the enforcement of the Post‘s measure looks like. First, who is a “news organization?” Is this a title that one registers for with the government? Does the Post get the title but not its website competitors? I suppose those big bucks dinners with lobbyists and policymakers really are worth something.

As a practical matter, it would be an incredible affront to the First Amendment if the Post and other major newspapers and established news outlets were given any special ability to sue under such an act, compared to websites, or for that matter think tanks.

Going with his usual inclination to “think this one through for a moment,” Baker finds the whole argument somewhat moot, considering how the paper’s reporter “does not even know that he was harmed by the website piece.” In fact, “it is entirely possible that more people viewed his piece on the Post‘s site as a result of the version appearing on the website.”

Read lots of related content in the special Future of Journalism issue of FAIR’s magazine Extra!: “Did Google Kill the Newspaper Star?” (7/09) by Peter Hart.