An executive with the music industry's lobbying group engaged in a verbal sparring match on Thursday with the Washington Post columnist who alleges that the organization is trying to outlaw the practice of copying CDs to a computer.
National Public Radio hosted in on-air debate between Marc Fisher, the Post columnist, and Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The way I saw it, Fisher was ill advised to debate. What was exposed was a reporter who doesn't want to admit to making a mistake and has dug his heels in. Meanwhile, according to Sherman, Fisher has misled consumers.
Early in the debate, Fisher was on the defense as Sherman picked apart his story, which appeared on Sunday. In the piece Fisher quoted from a court document, filed in the case of an Arizona man accused by the RIAA of illegal file sharing. Fisher wrote that the quotes demonstrated that the lobbying group was now challenging the right of music fans to rip CDs to their computers.
Copying CDs to a computer or an iPod is common all over the world and if Fisher's claims were correct, the RIAA would be painting millions of people as criminals. The story became national news and scores of publications repeated Fisher's claims.
But as numerous bloggers and copyright experts have noted, the quotes cited by Fisher are incomplete. Fisher wrote that the RIAA had argued in the brief that MP3 files created from legally bought CDs are "unauthorized copies" and violate the law.
"The Post picked up one sentence in a 21-page brief and then picked the part of the sentence about ripping CDs onto the computer," Sherman said during the radio show. "(The Post) simply ignored the part of the sentence about putting them into a shared folder."
The "shared folder" omission is at the center of what's wrong with Fisher's story. Anyone who reads the brief can see that the RIAA says over and over again what it considers to be illegal activity: the distribution of music files via peer-to-peer networks.
Fisher didn't address this issue during the debate. Instead he moved on to testimony given by Jennifer Pariser, a Sony BMG lawyer, who said during an earlier court case: "when an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song."
This is when Sherman really went to work on Fisher's story.
"The Sony person who (Fisher) relies on actually misspoke in that trial," Sherman said. "I know because I asked her after stories started appearing. It turns out that she had misheard the question. She thought that this was a question about illegal downloading when it was actually a question about ripping CDs. That is not the position of Sony BMG. That is not the position of that spokesperson. That is not the position of the industry."
Sherman said that other reporters and bloggers had called about Pariser's quotes and chose not to write about them after learning she had erred.
Why wasn't Fisher offered this information? Well, he would have been had he spoken to anyone at the RIAA, Sherman said.
Prior to writing the story Fisher called the RIAA for a statement once and left a message, according to Sherman. When the RIAA's spokesman returned the call two hours later, he missed Fisher. But Fisher never called back to get the RIAA's statement even though the story wasn't published until nine days later.
It's customary for journalists to give the subject of a story a chance to be quoted--especially when they're slamming them.
Again, Fisher declined to address Sherman's accusations. He moved on to statements that appear on the RIAA's Web site, which he claims show that the group considers copying music to a computer as unlawful.
But Sherman suggested that Fisher was once again being selective with the RIAA's statements. Sherman showed the location on the site where the RIAA says that people can typically copy music for personal use without any problems.
"They go on to equivocate and say, 'Well, usually it won't raise concerns if you go ahead and transfer legally obtained music to your computer,'" Fisher said during the debate, "but they won't go all the way and say that it's a legal right."
Here was an opportunity for Sherman to declare once and for all that copying CDs for personal use is lawful. He stopped short of that, saying that copyright law is too complex to make such sweeping statements. He did state that there is one foolproof way of discovering the RIAA's policy on personal use: check the record.
"Not a single (legal) case has ever been brought (by the RIAA against someone for copying music for personal use)," Sherman said. "Not a single claim has ever been made."
In the final analysis, this is really a story about journalism ethics more than it is about technology. Fisher is a respected journalist who probably should remember one of the first things they teach cub reporters: when someone challenges you over a story, it's smart to think of worst-case scenarios.
Reporters are reminded to ask themselves whether they could defend everything they did during the reporting and writing process if ever sued? If the RIAA ever took the Post to court over the issue, Fisher might have to explain why he omitted important sections of the RIAA's legal brief. He would have to justify not trying harder to get RIAA comment.
If a reporter's work doesn't stand up, the typical remedy at most media organizations is to issue a correction. That's what the Post should do in this case.
Greg Sandoval is a former Washington Post staff writer.