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Arrangement meant to be beneficial to all involved

Media outlets rethink news embargo ethics

by Paul Farhi

The Washington Post

It’s said that the news never stops. But often, its timing is stage-managed.

Much of the news, particularly in Washington, is produced under an important, if obscure, agreement known as an embargo. This arrangement between newsmakers and news reporters is meant to be mutually beneficial. A source — whether in government, book publishing or the entertainment business — releases to the press a piece of information or provides access to a highly anticipated book or movie, but only under the condition that the recipients hold off on publishing anything about it until a specified hour.

Journalists who agree to the embargo learn about important news on equal terms with their competitors and get a head start on researching, writing or recording their stories. Sources, meanwhile, maximize the impact of their news by having it blasted by the media en masse.

But in a fast-twitch, scoop-driven media environment, embargoes have become increasingly difficult to enforce. Despite signing embargo pledges, for example, some media outlets in 2007 published early reviews of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” thereby outraging readers and the publisher with disclosures of the series-ending book’s key plot points.

The news organizations argued that the embargo had become null and void once an online discounter began selling copies of the book before the agreed-upon release date.

In Washington, embargoes help explain why so many stories tend to break at the same time at different news organizations. Essentially, they’re designed to come out that way. And few sources play the embargo game as regularly as the White House.

On any given day, the White House press office embargoes news big and small, from presidential appointments to new policy initiatives to upcoming travel schedules. In almost every case, reporters wait until the appointed hour before hitting the “publish” button.

For the most part, the system works. Until it doesn’t. And in a few recent instances it hasn’t, prompting some in the White House press corps to re-examine a time-honored way in which the news is made.

Buzzfeed, the viral generator of both cute-animal GIFs and serious political reporting, touched off a mini-tempest last month when it pre-emptively reported President Barack Obama’s interview with TV host Charlie Rose. PBS, which carried the interview, had embargoed a transcript of the interview. But Buzzfeed — never having agreed to an embargo in the first place — posted early excerpts, scooping PBS and the rest of the news media.

This brought condemnations from, among others, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, who calls the early jump “a low blow.” Said Todd: “This was (PBS’) intellectual property. I think you have to respect another news organization’s intellectual property. . . . I believe in the golden rule. It just crossed a line for me.”

Todd said he understands the economic imperatives driving reporters around — and right through — embargoes.

“It’s about (maximizing) traffic,” he said. “Everyone wants to have the relevant click or link of the moment. . . . If you have something first or something provocative, it will boost your clicks. I think the pressures on news organizations are as great as ever. It’s survival of the fittest out there.”

But Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith says that misses the basic point: Buzzfeed never agreed to anyone’s embargo. “Embargoes are agreements between reporters and sources,” he emailed. “We respect our sources but do not work for them; we abide by embargoes that we have agreed to.”

In another episode, journalists questioned the timing of a Dow Jones Newswires-Wall Street Journal report last month that seemed to violate another White House embargo. The story reported Obama’s official nomination of former Bush administration official James Comey to head the FBI.

While that news had been expected for weeks, the official announcement was still under embargo when the Journal reported it. However, Evan Perez, the lead reporter on the Comey story, says there was no violation. The newspaper developed the story itself, he said, independently of official sources and thus outside the embargo’s ambit.

In an interview, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Reuters’ breach was “inadvertent,” while the Journal produced its story through “hard work,” not embargo jumping.

As a rule, he said, “embargoes are designed to assist the press and create a level playing field that gives everyone the same information at the same time. . . . It’s not about coddling or manipulation. It’s designed to make people’s lives easier, both those who cover us and those who prepare the information for release.”

The unbecoming alternative, he said, would be to release information without warning, at any hour of the day. “We could just drop (the news) at 6 a.m. and let everyone scramble.”

But Peter Baker, a veteran White House reporter for The New York Times, argues that the White House manages embargoes for self-serving ends. It “uses embargoes mainly to try to manage the news,” he said. “It will put out some small scrap of information, usually previewing an event to be held the next day, and embargo it to 6 a.m. That way it can help drive coverage starting at the beginning of the day on the morning shows and websites. It’s a way of trying to manipulate the fast currents of the modern news cycle.”

What’s more, he argues that the White House over-embargoes. In years past, Baker said, the practice was used for complicated stories that required reporters to digest a lot of information, such as the release of the federal budget. Nowadays, embargoes are “used quite indiscriminately for all sorts of stories, some less worthy than others.”

And one more thing: “No one ever asks if we agree to an embargo. They’re just sent out to mass email lists with the assumption that if we receive it, we agree to it.”

But Baker says reporters do not have many options, even if the gentlemen’s agreement behind embargoes isn’t all that gentlemanly: “We don’t really have a lot of tools on our side, other than to apply news judgment and not write up items that frankly often don’t really merit coverage.”