Hey, journalists! Stop getting all huffy about the Huffington Post's "lifting" of stories.

Media criticism.
April 15 2009 6:04 PM

Don't Get All Huffy About the Huffington Post

The sort of borrowing it does is in the American journalistic tradition.

Arianna Huffington.
Arianna Huffington

As Mark Gimein noted last week in The Big Money, the media giants have put the Web's journalistic "parasites"—blogs, aggregators, Google—on notice that they will no longer allow them to pinch their copy without reimbursement. The Associated Press has threatened legal action against thieves of its intellectual property, MediaNews executive (and AP Chairman) Dean Singleton has seconded that threat, and News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch and Robert Thomson, the top editor of News Corp.'s Wall Street Journal, growl in harmony.

Their fury against the Web is not isolated. Pinch any journalist (print, Web, or broadcast) who creates what he considers original copy, and he's likely to regale you with the stories of how his publication's product has been stolen or otherwise misappropriated by a Web site. More often than not, the wronged will point his finger at the Huffington Post, the self-styled "Internet newspaper" launched by Arianna Huffington in 2005. When not accusing the Huff Post of outright theft, these angry writers and editors will seethe about how the site routinely abuses the "fair-use doctrine" by milking the essence out of other publications by lifting the salient paragraphs out of their stories.

Here's an example of the Huffington Post technique. To the aggrieved, it doesn't matter that the Huffington Post supplies a "Read the whole story here" link at the bottom of the lifted paragraph. It doesn't matter that attribution for the paragraph can be found if you know where to look for it on the cluttered page. They'll bluster that the damn page looks like original-to-Huffington Post copy, and they're pissed about being ripped off.

Just try to talk them down with the observation that Huff Post reporters Sam Stein, Ryan Grim, Jason Linkins, and Thomas B. Edsall do lots of original journalism on the site, and that the site pays for its Associated Press content, and that hundreds of bloggers submit their work directly to the site. You'll get nowhere.

I personally don't like the way the Huff Post "showcases" the work of other journalists, but I don't get heated about it, either (with exception of the violation of the Chicago Reader mentioned above). Borrowing, sponging, lifting, scrounging, leaching, pinching, and outright theft of other publications' work is firmly in the American journalistic tradition.

For example, during the "yellow journalism" era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newspapers blatantly lifted one another's stories. In one case, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal grew so furious at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World's purloining of their copy from the Cuban theater of the Spanish-American War that they invented a war hero by the name of Colonel Reflipe W. Thenuz and killed him off, with this report:

Colonel Reflipe W. Thenuz, an Austrian artillerist of European renown, who, with Colonel Ordonez, was defending the land batteries of Aquadores was so badly wounded that he has since died. Col. Thenuz was foremost in the attempt to repulse the advance and performed many acts of valor.

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The World rewrote the Journal's fiction as:

Colonel R.W. Thenuz, an Austrian artillerist well know throughout Europe, who, with Colonel Ordonez, was defending the land batteries of Aquadores, was so badly wounded that he has since died.

As Denis Brian writes in Pulitzer: A Life, the Journal then revealed its hoax, noting that Reflipe W. Thenuz was a rough anagram for "We pilfer the news." The Journal continued to rub the World's nose in the theft for a month, Brian writes, proposing to build a Col. Thenuz monument funded by "Confederate notes, Chinese cash and repudiated bonds" donated by readers. A comic poem honoring Col. Thenuz and a full-page cartoon by the Journal ridiculing the World followed.

Pulitzer and the World, which was as sinned against by Hearst's Journal as much as sinning, got ultimate revenge in 1918. Hearst had started a wire service of his own, International News Service, because the Pulitzer-controlled Associated Press blocked him from buying that wire's copy. A lawsuit arose when Hearst's INS went ahead and rewrote the facts contained in AP wire and moved them, and the courts created a "hot news" doctrine that stopped the upstart's borrowing.

Henry R. Luce helped himself to the content of the nation's newspapers, which he and his staff rewrote without much in the way of attribution, when he and Briton Hadden founded Time magazine in 1923. The plundering went on well into 1937, James L. Baughman writes in Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media, with one top Time staffer telling a group of editors, "We don't pretend to be reporters at Time. We are rewrite men." The Time tradition of helping oneself to the bounty of others goes on at the Week, where the staff borrows heavily from other publications for every issue but at least returns lavish attribution.

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