By Freedom Newspapers
There was no magic in the way two American newspapers obtained copies of the long-awaited, final installment of the Harry Potter series before its official release early Saturday morning.
But there are questions of ethics involving the “embargoed” book, the early reviews those newspapers chose to publish and the amount of advance and likely fraudulently obtained material already available on the Internet.
Should The New York Times and The Sun of Baltimore have held their reviews until Scholastic, the American publisher of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” deemed its copies fit for public consumption? No. Should myriad file-sharing sites have held advance material until Scholastic released the title? Yes.
For the same reasons.
Despite allegations of ethical malfeasance whipped up by London media sources and author J.K. Rowling herself, both the Times and The Sun were right in their decisions to print Wednesday an examination of the book. Had those newspapers obtained an advance copy of the book through nefarious means, they would not have been. Journalistic integrity is sustained, in part, by the notion of righteously obtaining information.
The Times was able to buy a copy of the book from a New York City store that inappropriately placed it on sale Tuesday; The Sun received the book when a relative of a reporter received it earlier than expected from an online retailer.
The same cannot be said for many online sites that began posting supposed advance material from the book before even prematurely released copies were available. That the means by which this information was obtained is questionable calls into question the information itself — and moves its release beyond ethical boundaries.
But back to the “embargo.” One media watchdog, The Poynter Institute, defines embargo in this context as an “agreement between a journalist and a publisher to withhold information until a certain date.”
In the case of “Harry Potter,” there is no such agreement between newspaper and publisher. Rather, there is an agreement between Scholastic and its distributors not to release the book before July 21.
“Journalists have no loyalty to Scholastic,” said Kelly McBride, Poynter’s ethics group leader.
She’s right. A journalist’s loyalty belongs to readers.
That’s a pact that extends, especially in our era of 24-hour news, to publishing correct and timely information on a cycle dictated by accuracy and audience — and not by those who would seek to own private intelligence and distribute it on their own timetables, as Scholastic would do.
And yet also not by those who would seek to distribute information to cultivate a sense of false ownership or to impede the natural progress of pop culture, as some Web sites have done.
Were the current allegations instead about a financial scandal exposed by fair and honest research, rather than the release of a 12 million first-run copy of a book aimed at young adults, surely the charges of impropriety from our British neighbors would not be as shrill.
Author Rowling is “staggered that some American newspapers have decided to publish purported spoilers in the form of reviews,” Reuters news service reported.
She should be thankful. Both The New York Times and The Sun skillfully handled the reviews, refused to publish the ending or surprising details and praised a mature writer at the top of her game.
A fair review. What more could an author — or publishing house — ask for?