UPDATED

NY Times Public Editor: The Olympics? Don’t Tell Me: “‘Could you please ask the editor of the front Web page to not name the winners within the headlines/sub-headlines?’ asked Ken Waters of Phoenix. Matt Gooch of Harrisonburg, Va. said he was disappointed when The Times reported the results of the men’s downhill before NBC showed the event. ‘This is not Taliban news, nor TARP news, or even Paula Jones type news,’ Gooch said. ‘There is no meaning to this except the anticipation and suspense that sports viewers feel watching the event live. Please help me understand why your organization needs to spoil the experience.’”

Good. Grief.

The fact that the ombudsman of the New York Times needs to explain to readers why his newspaper reports actual news as it happens — and Olympic results are actual news — is a depressing commentary on our nation’s entertainment-driven culture.

NBC bought U.S. TV rights to the Olympics, and NBC has chosen not to present live coverage. It wants to put the high-profile events on at night in the U.S. when it can score the biggest audience. It’s entirely about money, as the Olympics are in a general sense at this point.

But to suggest that real news organizations should defer to NBC’s greed is beyond idiotic. It’s pathetic.

Mr. Waters of Phoenix and Mr. Gooch of Harrisonburg, and others like them, need remedial education in at least three respects. First, they need to understand that news organizations are in business to report news. Second, no one is forcing them to look at the Times website in the first place.

And, third, remember: The spoiler here is NBC, which wants you to live in a fantasy world. Blame the entertainment moguls there, not real journalists, if you learn who won an event before NBC deigns to show it on TV.

Any news organization holding back on news because entertainment consumers want to live in their fantasy worlds deserves utter contempt. As a (very small) shareholder in the New York Times Co., I’m glad to see that America’s best newspaper has the right standards in this regard.

UPDATE: Several commenters have defended the notion that news organizations have some kind of duty to hold back their reports or put reports on pages where news viewers won’t have to see the reports. One commenter, who says he’s a journalism school graduate, even suggested a “civic function” in such a method. This is head-slappingly strange logic (as I responded):

To suggest there’s some kind of civic function in asking news organizations to withhold breaking news of an entertainment event (I agree the Olympics are entertainment more than anything else) is bizarre. There is no civic value in two corporate media giants colluding to help one of them make enough money to justify its overpayment for TV rights. NBC has absolutely no interest in performing a civic function; its entire motivation is the bottom line.

Your idea of “timeliness” is equally odd. No one is preventing you from structuring your news the way you want to. If you prefer not to learn about news events until later in the day, or tomorrow or next week, you have an easy way of doing this: Don’t read, listen to or watch news reports until you’re ready to learn what’s happened. You will also need to stay away from the water cooler and conversations with friends and colleagues who don’t share your desire to learn about the outcome of ski races only when a giant media corporation deems it most profitable.

I watched the skiing last night on NBC. The network severely edited the race, ignoring the runs of roughly half of the top seed (first 15 racers) because the women crashed or were otherwise deemed uninteresting to the American audience by the NBC entertainment editors. It inserted a vast number of commercials into what little of the event it decided to broadcast. This is the civic virtue you want to reward? Please.

37 Responses to “There are No ‘Spoilers’ in News”
  1. jack says:

    Wow. Obviously this request touched a nerve with you. My guess is that your issue is with NBC and you are taking it out on the average reader here. It seems (to me at least) that you glossed over an important element. They didn’t ask the Times to not report on the news, only to not mention the winner in the headline. Big difference.

    And by all means, why should the Times start listening to consumers and change their models to fit reader’s consumption habits/needs. I mean ignoring the consumer worked out so well for the music industry… wait. No it didn’t. Well, it certainly is working out for the movie industry and blockbuster… um, nope. Wait, the magazine industry?

    Seriously, I hear what you’re saying about the news needing to have standards, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to respect your readers. Is it so hard to put a headline up that states “Women’s Downhill Decided – Spoiler Alert”, or something to that effect?

    • Dan Gillmor says:

      Jack, you are asking a responsible news organization to defer to people’s wish to fool themselves. I’m very happy to see that the Times, at least, won’t play that game.

      • jack says:

        Hey Dan – I think we may have to agree to disagree :-). I truly don’t see it as enabling people to fool themselves, but enabling people to choose when/where/how they interact with content (and ultimately the results).

        The news can still be reported on the breaking news page, but in such a way that people can choose if they want to know the results immediately or not.

        At the end of the day, sports is entertainment. I mean, should movie reviews include endings and plot twists? The review is just a news article about a new movie coming out… the real “spoiler” are the studios who want to turn a profit on their investment…

        • Dan Gillmor says:

          No one is stopping you from interacting with content your own way. Just stay away from the sites that tell you the news as it’s happening. Simple.

          A sports event, while entertainment, has nothing else in common with a movie. To conflate the two doesn’t help your point.

          • jack says:

            Please tell me how I’m supposed to know which sites will ruin the olympic experience for me prior to going to them (so that I can then avoid them in the future). No. I have to go there once and “learn my lesson”.

            Nothing else in common? They are both pieces of entertainment content whose broadcast rights are owned by an entity looking to make a profit (whether you like it or not NBC owns it, they paid for it). And, I wasn’t attempting to conflate the two, I was pointing out a similarity between the two and that you feel as though your rules of journalism should only apply to one, and not the other.

            I do like that your business model is essentially to not adapt to consumer needs, and to essentially tell them to shove off. Content providers no longer have the control and power that they used to. Times have changed (and are changing), it’s a consumers world and we’re just living in it.

            Oh, and for the record, I still don’t feel like you’ve addressed why putting a headline up that doesn’t reveal the winner is such a terrible solution. You essentially just became a touch elitist and told me I’m an idiot that wants to fool myself… and while you might be right about the idiot part, I don’t feel as though you really made a well founded point/rebuttal.

  2. Graham says:

    I was expecting to be with you based on the tweet, but I have to agree with Jack here. Providing readers who want to watch the events in the evening an option that let’s them see the other news of the day without Olympic coverage would be smart. People don’t want to be fooled about WMD, nor do they want lies about sports outcomes. But letting them choose to get
    some information later doesn’t betray any priciples of journalism I was taught. Isn’t the advantage of an online medium that information can be rebundled in different ways?

    • Dan Gillmor says:

      If you want to get the information on NBC’s timetable, that’s your choice. To ask the Times to withhold actual news from its breaking-news pages is, I believe, offensive to journalism.

      • Graham says:

        I think there’s a difference between sports and entertainment news and news on public affairs. I, for one, neither watch NBC’s coverage nor read more timely coverage of the Olympics: I don’t care who wins! But I am a graduate of a journalism school and a young veteran of reporting in several media. I understand the drive to put things out there quickly. Timeliness, I was taught, is an important element of newsworthiness.

        The argument that allowing people to structure their information in a different bundle is offensive to journalism, however, depends on the idea that timeliness trumps other values in news. I think the most important value of news is its civic function.

        Do entertainment and sports news serve a civic function? If you believe that community identity and cross-cutting ties are a key element of U.S. democracy (which puts you in the company of de Tocqueville and Robert Putnam), then the answer is yes. But does timely reporting online matter in this context? I think there may be a civic, social capital-based argument for letting people wait for the NBC coverage, so that they will watch these things together.

        Is timeliness more important than the civic outcome? Elements of newsworthiness do not always serve us well; witness the speed- and conflict-fueled daily political crossfire. My point here is that if “journalism” is a form to be defended, we must ask why. To the extent that fundamentals of journalism were developed in an era of daily newspapers, I think it’s important to ask whether a reliance on the fundamentals serves the same purpose now.

        • Dan Gillmor says:

          To suggest there’s some kind of “civic function” in asking news organizations to withhold breaking news of an entertainment event (I agree the Olympics are entertainment more than anything else) is bizarre. There is no civic value in two corporate media giants colluding to help one of them make enough money to justify its overpayment for TV rights. NBC has absolutely no interest in performing a civic function; its entire motivation is the bottom line.

          Your idea of “timeliness” is equally odd. No one is preventing you from structuring your news the way you want to. If you prefer not to learn about news events until later in the day, or tomorrow or next week, you have an easy way of doing this: Don’t read, listen to or watch news reports until you’re ready to learn what’s happened. You will also need to stay away from the water cooler and conversations with friends and colleagues who don’t share your desire to learn about the outcome of ski races only when a giant media corporation deems it most profitable.

          I watched the skiing last night on NBC. The network severely edited the race, ignoring the runs of roughly half of the top seed (first 15 racers) because the women crashed or were otherwise deemed uninteresting to the American audience by the NBC entertainment editors. It inserted a vast number of commercials into what little of the event it decided to broadcast. This is the civic virtue you want to reward? Please.

          • Graham says:

            The purpose of my argument was to note that there is a conceivable civic function for gathering around a synchronous broadcast. It depends on a body of theory on social capital (Bowling Alone is an example), and on the idea that gathering to watch the games may serve a bonding function. It’s a stretch and probably untenable in the end, but the point is to bring up the civic function.

            What you are defending here is the bundling of information, all of it, on the front page of the New York Times website. You also seem to blame NBC for trying to make money without noting that it’s probably a money-motivated move to keep full-bore sports news on NYT.com. What I’m wondering about is this: From what pool of virtue flows the mandate that a news organization publish everything at once in one immovable bundle?

            This is why I brought up the “pillars” of newsworthiness and of traditional journalism. I understand your irritation, but I don’t understand the principles it stands on. I’m asking that constructive question, not a combative rhetorical question.

            • Dan Gillmor says:

              Graham, your arguments are getting thinner as you go (and I’m glad to see you realize that). I don’t “blame” NBC for its money-grubbing; I expect it. But it’s genuinely ludicrious to compare NBC’s craven decision to withhold video until prime-time hours to journalists’ decision to publish the news as it happens.

              To call the Times’ home page an immovable bundle is to ignore reality, not to mention your own role in this transaction. Not only does that bundle evolve rapidly during the day, but you have the ultimate power to decide what you want to read and when you should read it. Do yourself a favor and avoid news sites for the next few days (that is, daytime in the U.S.; the “synchronous broadcast” you crave is problematic in the real world of 24 time zones, including the six that span the 50 U.S. states).

            • Graham says:

              I am disappointed that your only response to disagreement here is to become hostile and label others’ ideas as “ludicrous” or “head-slappingly strange.”

              You’ve studiously avoided addressing the core of my point, which is to ask what outcome-oriented principle supports your argument. There very well may be one, but you offer only that you find the current condition offensive to journalism. I’m asking why, and how it matters.

              Similar to Jack’s point above, I’m wondering what would be so harmful about either pulling names out of heds or offering disaggregated news to serve readers, who, after all, are asking to be spared entertainment news, not unappealing political or social stories.

              I was trying to engage in thought, not name-calling. You’ll notice that my tone, while perhaps increasingly irritated, is that of honest inquiry.

            • Graham says:

              Small correction: I meant that the proposed condition, not the current one, is offensive to journalism in your argument.

            • Dan Gillmor says:

              Graham and Jack,

              You are not asking news organizations to do an alternative display of the news for a segment of their readership. You are asking them to stop being serious journalists. I’m truly sorry, and somewhat amazed, that you don’t see this.

              Feel free to have the last words…

            • Dan, as a meta-comment, I think this thread illustrates a dilemma you’ve created for yourself. You cannot consistently be part of, bluntly, what’s pseudo-populist demagoguery attacking journalism, yet at the same time stand up for journalist ideals. It does not work. You can try to square this, well, it’s not a circle, more like a crazy curve, by simply declaring each side right when you want to argue it – but since they are fundamentally in intrinsic contradiction to each other, it leads to, essentially, threads like this one.

              Expanding further is likely to get me into trouble, so I’ll stop here :-(.

            • pobrecito hablador says:

              Nice to read you again, Mr. Finkelstein, please keep infothinking!

  3. Abe says:

    Worth noting:

    NBC is reporting the results immediately on its Web sites, just as the NYTimes and other news organizations are doing.

    NBC is holding back the winners on its broadcasts, but it’s not suppressing the news entirely.

    The winners are posted immediately (stories, prominent headlines, etc.) at msnbc.com (half owned by NBC) and nbcsports.com and nbcolympics.com.

  4. Rjourno says:

    Dan, I could not agree with you more. As a 20-something with a journalism degree, you are 100% correct. People can choose when and where they get their news. Newspapers and reporters are in business to report the truth, not to bow to corporate sponsors or john q public. (or at least that is how it is supposed to work) For example, you would never see NBC touch on these topics, even though this is a column:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/16/AR2010021605457.html

    The only reason to withhold news is when its reporting threatens lives, for example waiting a few days to report on military operations until they can be safely completed. Reporting which athlete won gold does not put anyone in harms way. There is no other conceivable reason to wait to report the news.

  5. Ken says:

    The self-congratulations on the part of NYT and others is staggering. We have had reports like this for years–of course a news organization will report fresh items. Why should anyone be considered exceptional for this decision?

  6. Delia says:

    Dan,

    I find it strange that you appear to give no consideration to the wants and, arguably, needs, of the people reading the NYT which should ultimately dictate what’s being done about issues like this.

    If the NYT ran a poll that showed that the vast majority of readers would prefer that info to be segregated somewhere where it could be easily avoided, would that matter to you?

    I think it should!

    Delia

  7. Delia says:

    hmmm… I’m not sure what happened but my post got posted *above* instead of below the posts that were there before mine… D.

  8. Easy solution: move to Canada. :) We have live Olympics coverage on three separate channels (six if you count SD and HD variants), plus NBC affiliate coverage from across the border. That’s not just for the Vancouver games — my wife and I watched live coverage from Nagano in the middle in the night in 1998, and Sydney in 2000 as well.

    With so much live commentary on Twitter and Facebook and blogs, NBC’s tape delays look sillier and sillier all the time. Just now I was watching live men’s ski jumping finals, then switched over to NBC to see what they were broadcasting. It was a Babar cartoon.

    • Dan Gillmor says:

      When I lived in Detroit for a few years, I got used to watching the CBC coverage of various things, including Olympics.

  9. Andrew says:

    As someone who loves the Olympics, thinks NBC does a fabulous job covering them, and appreciates the communal experience of watching the big moments in prime time with family and friends, I have to disagree with you here. People with jobs can’t watch the big events in real time, and shouldn’t have to black out all news for the day until they get home to watch it. It’s not too much to ask for news orgs to warn listeners or viewers, or for the NYT to refrain from spoiling events on the front page. Ultimately, the NYT can do whatever it wants. So can I, and I’ll choose to avoid their web site until I can watch the event myself.

    • Dan Gillmor says:

      Your solution is the correct one: Don’t read the NYT website (or any other legitimate news site) until you’ve watched the broadcast.

  10. Digidave says:

    I have to agree with you on this one Dan.

    I can’t imagine a world where the Times stays credible and also backs down and says – “okay NBC – you let us know when to hit publish.”

    I can understand the idea that people want the entertainment value of not knowing who won.

    This happens ALL the time.

    Every basketball game, football game, etc.

    I always found it odd that people would Tivo a sports game and try to watch it a day or two after it took place. That’s there choice – and in that situation they should know (and I imagine they do) avoid the sports page. Hey – it takes all kinds. But to assume that the sports page did something wrong by publishing the score/winner/etc – is silly.

    Meanwhile: @Seth – I’m not 100% sure I understood your comment, but if I did understand it – then I think it makes no sense.

    “You cannot consistently be part of, bluntly, what’s pseudo-populist demagoguery attacking journalism, yet at the same time stand up for journalist ideals.”

    If you are referring to Dan’s role in leading and understanding citizen journalism than I think you are creating a straw man. The “pseudo-populist demagoguery” is not out to “attack” journalism. They are participating in journalism. Making it stronger and bolder. And in that respect people who support and participate in participatory journalism can and should also stand up for journalistic ideals.

    If you want to put little devil tails on bloggers, paint them red and say they are destroying journalism – then yes, it would be very hard for one of them to stand up for journalistic ideals – but I have yet to meet anyone that fits this description.

    • @Digidave – one need only look at some of the comments in this thread – in particular, “I do like that your business model is essentially to not adapt to consumer needs, and to essentially tell them to shove off. Content providers no longer have the control and power that they used to. Times have changed (and are changing), it’s a consumers world and we’re just living in it.”

      That sort of reasoning is constantly promoted. Intellectually, it doesn’t work to then try to suddenly stop applying it (“You essentially just became a touch elitist and told me I’m an idiot that wants to fool myself”). This is what I mean by the dilemma that Dan has created for himself. The two horns – pseudo-popularism vs. standards – are constantly poking at each other, because they are intrinsically in opposition.

      • Dan Gillmor says:

        Seth, you are distorting — no, you’re making up wholesale — what I believe and advocate.

        I’m an advocate for the idea that users should do what they want with the material they get from various sources. Users have control only to a point, of course, but they do have plenty of options. So if someone wants, in this example, to create an RSS feed of NYT front-page stories that excludes all mention of the Olympics, that’s idiotic on their part, I believe, but also a choice they have every right to make. The one some of them ask for — and the one I’m glad the Times declines — is to bastardize the journalism in order to suit the whims of people who prefer to live in a fantasy world for a few hours.

        There is absolute no conflict between what I’ve been saying for years and what I’m saying now. And I think you know it.

        • Sigh, I really shouldn’t do this, because it’s far more risk than reward :-(

          Dan, step back a moment – how long have I been reading you? For the sake of discussion, can you grant me a little credit for knowing what you believe and advocate, and then perhaps having an insight about its problems in a wider context?

          The problem is at a level higher than only your statements. It’s that as a New-Media-Guru (or whatever term you want), you’re then embedded within the engine being driven by pseudo-popularism. THUS, when you write that something is a violation of journalistic standards, you’re going to get that pseudo-popularism argued against you. That’s what is being shown in this thread, and which I consider a very trivial statement. This is the dilemma you’ve created for yourself. And how many times have I or others pointed out you can’t effectively escape the sorts of problems it creates by declaring they shouldn’t exist?

          Look at what Delia just said:

          “I find it strange that you appear to give no consideration to the wants and, arguably, needs, of the people reading the NYT which should ultimately dictate what’s being done about issues like this.”

          The obvious argument is that if the NYT doesn’t consider them, then people will take their precious advertising-consuming eyeballs elsewhere, and then the NYT deserves to die because of it. Now, you make not be making this argument yourself – but my point is you can’t effectively escape it either, because it’s a shibboleth

          • Dan Gillmor says:

            Seth, you want me to take responsibility for what other people say, “at a higher level” than what I’ve said? No thanks, but I’ll continue to take responsibility for what I’ve actually said, and I’ll urge people who misrepresent what I’ve said to be more accurate.

            What you call the “obvious argument” is nothing of the sort. If the NYT doesn’t obey a small number of self-deluded readers in this case, it does not follow AT ALL that the paper deserves to die when those readers go elsewhere. I not only don’t make that argument, I reject it, because the more likely outcome of the Times’ decision to do actual journalism is that it’ll be more trusted and have a wider readership.

            • Dan, it’s not “take responsibility”, but more at “recognize there is a fundamental dilemma”, with the milleu – which is being shown in this whole thread. That is, in an environment marinated in pseudo-populism, you’re going to have a hard time arguing for standards, because it’s in opposition to how the audience has been trained to react.

              > What you call the “obvious argument” is nothing of the sort.

              C’mon. It’s repeated endlessly. Look what jack said above:

              “I do like that your business model is essentially to not adapt to consumer needs, and to essentially tell them to shove off. Content providers no longer have the control and power that they used to. Times have changed (and are changing), it’s a consumers world and we’re just living in it.”

              > the more likely outcome of the Times’ decision to do actual journalism is that it’ll be more trusted and have a wider readership.

              HA HA HA. That’ll happen right after justice prevails and good triumphs over evil.

              This is what I mean by trying to escape a dilemma by pronouncing it shouldn’t exist.

            • Delia says:

              sorry about the delay…

              Seth, I see you are tilting at windmills as usual :) As far as I can tell, you are never going to get those things acknowledged… (mostly because they are true… *lol*)

              Dan,

              I’m not sure if you grossly distorted what I said on purpose but it certainly looks like it…

              here is what I said:

              “If the NYT ran a poll that showed that *the vast majority* of readers would prefer that info to be segregated somewhere where it could be easily avoided, would that matter to you?

              I think it should!” {emphasis just here to make my point]

              and here is what you responded to Seth who brought up my post:

              “If the NYT doesn’t obey *a small number* of self-deluded readers in this case” {my emphasis]

              if at this point, you truly believe that it is laughable that the needs and wants of the users should be taken into consideration (that if the vast majority of long term readers would rather be able to read the paper version of the NYT without giving up the ability to watch the Olympic games without already knowing who won, the almighty NYT should just decline it…), I fear for the well being of your new project (you should have learned this basic lesson when your first project failed — it’s prohibitively expensive not to do so).

              Delia

              P.S. and let’s not pretend the NYT has no financial interest in this… from the short term business POV, they would *love* to plaster that stuff on the front page asap so they would sell more copies of that particular issue. Horrible idea! if that would be pissing off the loyal long term paper readership…I’m having a hard time believing you just don’t get this. And to say they are just doing it in the interest of solid journalism! yeah, right… and I got a bridge to sell you! (in Brooklyn); this is the ind of stuff that has been bothering Seth for a long time — as it should! D.

  11. Dan Gillmor says:

    Several commenters, most recently Seth, are making an assertion they can’t possibly back up.

    What we do know is that at least a few loud complainers are unhappy that the New York Times chooses to do real journalism instead of catering to the complainers’ wish not to know what’s happening until NBC chooses to broadcast it.

    Seth and several others here apparently believe the newspaper is kissing off a significant number of readers by holding to its standards, and that this is likely to hurt the paper’s bottom line. They have no evidence for this either, and I’d only note that the paper’s online audience continues to grow at a rapid rate.

    Seth continues to insist that I can’t reconcile my belief that the democratization of media is, on balance, a good thing and my equally strong belief that quality will find a community to support it in the end. There’s no conflict except in his own mind. But to create the conflict, he quotes a commenter whose position is, in my view, laughable.

    Seth accuses me of “trying to escape a dilemma by pronouncing it shouldn’t exist.” Not at all. I don’t have a dilemma to escape here, because it does not exist in the first place.

    • I give up. “[Dan], you are distorting — no, you’re making up wholesale — what I believe and advocate.”. I’m sorry I tried in the first place, I really should know better, and it’s a mistake :-(.

  12. Delia says:

    there we go again… my 2nd post on this thread (well, 3rd if you consider the note I posted after the 1st one posted in the wrong place) appears to have posted in the wrong place… I was responding to Dan’s comment about my 1st post. D.

  13. Delia says:

    oops… sorry… it actually posted correctly this time (the set-up is just confusing) D.

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