Friday, July 20, 2007

New York Times Angers Millions of Potter Fans

Clark Hoyt
Public Editor
New York Times

What were they thinking?

The New York Times printed a review about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on the front page of their paper Thursday, July 19, a full two days before the official release date. (That there will be no link to the NYT article here should be understandable.) What's more, many fans feel that they were duped into reading an article that they believed was about the hype surrounding the release and instead were shocked to read a review full of spoilers.

Potter fans have been outraged at the NYT ever since. It seems the phones at The Times have been ringing off the hook and their email servers are taking a big hit as thousands of Potter fans from around the globe are calling or writing in to voice their displeasure. Fans are angered not only at The Times, but also at Michiko Kakutani, who wrote the article and the unnamed bookstore that broke the embargo by giving her a copy.

New York Times Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, posted a response to the furor on his online journal entitled Did The Times Betray Potter Fans? Sadly, he never really gets around to addressing that question or meeting his readers' demands for an apology to them or to J.K. Rowling (author of the 7 volume Potter series). Hoyt settles for describing how he handed out this assignment and that really had no legal obligation not to publish an early review. From Hoyt's journal entry:
Some readers said they thought it was unethical of the The Times to break the book’s official publication date.

I disagree.

Rick Lyman, the books and theatre editor, said, “Our feeling is that once a book is offered up for sale at any public, retail outlet, and we purchase a copy legally and openly, we are free to review it.”

I think it’s important to remember that there was never a contract or an agreement between The Times and Rowling or her publisher. The publisher set the release date unilaterally as part of the brilliant marketing campaign that has propelled the entire Harry Potter phenomenon. Neither The Times nor any other newspaper had an obligation to help enforce the release date.
Hoyt's off-handedness seems to imply that any other newspaper or journalist would have done the same, however this is refuted by the fact that many newspapers and journalists are doing the exact opposite and are determinedly respecting Rowling's requested embargo, as detailed by this professional reviewer:
#26. July 19th, 2007 9:02 pm
I believe this was a dubious decision. There was an understanding, usually respected in such situations. You may have a legal excuse for what you did, but you have no moral excuse. Many reviewers, I am one, have respected the request of the publishers involved, but, above all, respected the author who has shown so much respect for all of us.

I will get my copy after midnight on Friday, like everyone else, and I will spend most of the weekend reading and then writing my review so that it will appear as soon as possible. I would not dream of jumping the gun, nor would any of my colleagues I have spoken to. We are all very very angry with you.
— Posted by Ann Wright
Potter fans are not accepting Hoyt's non-apology. They're also not buying Hoyt's excuse that the novel was up for fair game merely because it was for sale. From the comments on Hoyt's Journal entry:
#27. July 19th, 2007 9:11 pm
...you are correct that the Times did not have a contract with Scholastic or Rowling, However the store you bought if from did. Even if it isn’t illegal for you to use it was WELL known that it was not supposed to be available for sale. We deserve an apology, not person after person telling the fans that we have no right to be outraged.
— Posted by James Alexander
#70. July 20th, 2007 10:06 am
Whether or not the Times is legally or ethically permitted to report a story is not what the editorial board should be primarily concerned with — rather, the question is whether the public is well served by running it. Those who have little interest in the Potter series could only be marginally interested in reading the review in advance of the book’s general release; but those who have been dedicated fans for years could reasonably be expected to suffer outrage and disappointment by seeing even the review’s title printed here so long before they’d have an opportunity to read the book themselves.
— Posted by A. Boykowycz
Fans have also questioned The Times' motives on everything from the placement of the story- on the front page of the paper, when book reviews normally go in the Arts section- to the NYT double standards in reporting about Harry Potter and other stories.
#37. July 19th, 2007 11:14 pm
Whether or not it was ethical for the Times to publish a pre-release-date review of the book is less of an issue, I think, than the fact that editors decided to include the review in the news section rather than the arts section of the paper. As a regular reader of the Times I’ve come to expect book reviews—-and all the “spoilers” they may entail—-to be in the arts section or Sunday Book Review.

I would be interested to hear the justification for publishing this review in the news section, and to find out if this has ever been done before with another book. Certainly the Times realizes that the packaging of an article (its headline, photo, location in the paper, etc.) can be a just-as-powerful conveyor of meaning as the article’s text itself.
— Posted by L. Kruempel
#61. July 20th, 2007 8:58 am
The Times is trying to have it both ways. You want the headlines by beating other newspapers to the review of Book 7, yet you refuse to include the Potter books in your NYT Bestsellers list.
— Posted by Susan Fillippeli
(For more on this, see the article, Why Harry Potter Won't Be a Bestseller, from Huffington Post.)
#50. July 20th, 2007 5:10 am
Once again, annonymous sources are the only explanation for unprofessional behavior: days in advance of the embargoed release of one the most anticipated books in history, some unnamed NYT employee happened to be in some unnamed bookstore and find the book for sale over the counter at retail price. You insult the intelligence of your readers. From this point forward, I count Rick Lyman every bit as creditable as Judith Miller and Jayson Blair.
— Posted by party-of-one
As a long time Potter reader, I am squarely on the side of the outraged fans. For sheer the volume of global interest, J.K. Rowling has created a literary phenomenon. I am well aware that many people regard the Potter series as something of a fad akin to pet rocks in the 1970's. However, many in the industry agree that their hasn't been this much literary anticipation since Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, created it's 19th Century buzz with fans literally waiting for ships to come into port to get the latest installment. That Deathly Hallows publication is important to many is indisputable.

Never being one to miss an opportunity to lament George Bush's unfortunate administration of our country, I can't help but think of the NYT suppressing the White House wiretapping scandal for an entire year. Yet, they couldn't bear to hold a gentleman's agreement with Rowling and her fans for a mere two days. For those who are not Potter fans, this may seem trivial. I, for one see it as yet another footnote in the New York Times' slide from its place of honor as the "paper of record" to mere tabloid spoilsport.

Update: I'm not the only one who has drawn comparisons to the Bush administration! Infamous leaker Judith Miller is now on the record as defending The Times' right to leak out the Potter information. Outrageous.

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