Was Politico and Time's scooping Rolling Stone's McChrystal Story Ethical?

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Credit: Rolling Stone's web site. Above image is detail from screen capture.

Rolling Stone’s profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal (“The Runaway General,” June 22, 2010) has raised a number of journalism ethics questions, but the media’s handling of the story also has led to ethical and copyright questions.

For starters, Rolling Stone was scooped out of its own story. News organizations including Politico and Time magazine posted the Rolling Stone article online before Rolling Stone.

“The decision about when to publish our material is ours and ours alone. It was completely inappropriate,” The New York Times’s David Carr reported Rolling Stone’s executive editor Eric Bates said.

“What these two big media organizations did was really off the charts. They took something that was in a prepublished form, sent out to other media organizations with specific restrictions, and just put it up.”

Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School, told NPR June 28 that he thinks news organizations publishing the article on their sites before Rolling Stone had “crossed the line  in the same way that a bank robber who goes into a bank and takes money out of the cashier’s drawer crosses a line.”

David Carr wrote June 27 for the New York Times that “It was a clear violation of copyright and professional practice, and it amounted to taking money out of a competitor’s pocket.”

Carr reported that both Politico and Time said they posted the story because it wasn’t available on Rolling Stone’s website and “that when Rolling Stone protested, it was taken down.”

Politico’s executive editor Jim VandeHei wrote in an e-mail that Politico posted the story because “It was being circulated and widely discussed among insiders, and our team felt readers should see what insiders were reading and reacting to” and that Time’s spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that it posted the story “to help separate rumor from fact” and that the website planned to take the story down once Rolling Stone made it available, Carr reported.

Carr wrote that Rolling Stone had given an advance copy of the story to the Associated Press June 21 with restrictions, and once news outlets read the AP story they requested copies of the story.

Carr stated that Politico and Time violated fair use and technically stole Rolling Stone’s story. Fair use allows news organizations to use copyrighted material “for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose such as to comment upon, criticize or parody a copyrighted work,” according to Stanford University Libraries’s website.

Politico criticized the magazine for not publishing earlier on June 22 right after Rolling Stone posted the article online:

“Well, it took them a while, but the profile of General McChrystal is now up on Rolling Stone’s website. That happened a little after 10 a.m.,  which begs the question, why miss the surge of traffic that would have come from having this online as soon as the story broke?”

On June 28, The Guardian also criticized Rolling Stone for not having the story online faster.  But as Business Insider noted, Rolling Stone ordinarily doesn’t post the full text of national affairs stories on its website.

Mediaite wrote June 28: “It may not be nice that the story got posted in full elsewhere, it may not be fair, but I also think that to presume you own the ‘right to publish on a schedule you chose’ when what you are publishing is determining the course of action is a highly controversial war, is downright naive.”

See more iMediaEthics coverage of the McChrystal controversy:

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Was Politico and Time’s scooping Rolling Stone’s McChrystal Story Ethical?

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