L.A. Times Crushes Big Content

Commentary by K. Matthew Dames, executive editor.

This is from the “you know you’re unpopular when your hometown paper is crushing you” department:

Scarcely a week passes without the entertainment industry warning us that its business model is about to be exterminated by some new technology.

The Internet, satellite radio and TiVo are among the mortal threats that have sent media executives scurrying to Washington with proposals to rein them in, tax them, even ban them. The music labels, TV networks and movie studios never propose to alter their own models to accommodate new technologies — they merely insist that everybody else change to accommodate them. When they don’t get their own way with lawmakers, they take it out on consumers.

Plainly, the media companies are engaged in an all-out attack on the principle of “fair use.”

Whenever a community is home to a particularly successful industry, it is common for that community’s newspaper to think twice about criticizing that industry or the domestic large companies that are in that industry. When I was just beginning to get started in journalism in the late nineties, the Cincinnati Enquirer published a scathing series about Chiquita Brands International, Inc., the banana company, accusing it of various and sundry unethical business practices, including improper (and perhaps illegal) uses of pesticides and environmental toxins. At the time, Chiquita was based in Cincinnati, and its owner, Carl Lindner, was one of Cincinnati’s most powerful business figures.

Many of the critical stories were published prominently in a special section in the Enquirer, and included several Page One stories.

Chiquita, sensitive to damage to its corporate reputation, fought back, claiming that one of package’s lead reporters, Mike Gallagher, had improperly obtained voice mail to support his stories. The Enquirer retracted the entire package, apologized to Chiquita on its front page, and fired Gallagher. The newspaper, part of the Gannett newspaper empire, also paid a financial settlement to Chiquita believed to be worth as much as $50 million. (See Columbia Journalism Review coverage.)

To my knowledge, none of the information in the Chiquita package has been discounted as untrue. In fact, research for the core claims in the package — including money laundering, violations of child labor laws, and sweatshop work conditions — did not depend on any voice mail material, as Salon later reported.

I recount this story because since that time, media outlets have been loathe to do investigative reporting. They also have, to a great extent, abdicated their role as a governor on corporate and government abuses. Put in this context, it is rather unusual for the Los Angeles Times to criticize Big Content so directly. There once was a time, however, where this sort of critical reporting and editorializing was routine.

Michael Hiltzik. An Industry Unwilling to Play by Rules of ‘Fair Use’. Dec. 12, 2005.

See also:

Nicholas Stein. Banana Peel. Columbia Journalism Review. September/October 1998.

Bruce Shapiro. Rotten Banana. July 8, 1998.

John Nolan. Chiquita Accepts Apology, $10M from Enquirer. June 29, 1998.

The Cincinnati Enquirer. An Apology to Chiquita. June 28, 1998.

CopyCense™: K. Matthew Dames on the intersection of business, law and technology. A business venture of Seso Digital LLC.

Written by sesomedia

12/12/2005 at 08:55

Posted in Web & Online

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