I knew that Tim Russert died before you probably did. So did not only (obviously) NBC News, but its competitor news channels, who agreed to withhold the news until Russert’s family had been notified and NBC reported it. (NBC didn’t, to my knowledge, ask Time or Tuned In to hold back, but by the time I finished my appreciation of Russert, the news was on TV.)
Wikipedia, however, had news of Russert’s death well before it was announced in the mainstream press. (One more example of the non-mainstream media breaking news before the MSM.) And now comes word from the New York Times that the person who updated Russert’s posting—a junior employee of a company that contracts with NBC—was fired in punishment for offending the network.
I’m not going to pretend that Russert’s death was urgent news that the public needed to know immediately. If NBC News wanted to hold off to notify the family, fine for them; I don’t even have an issue if its competitors agree to hold off on the news as well. (As I recall, the New York Times itself posted the news on its website before it broke on TV.) And I suppose it’s within the rights of NBC’s contractor—Internet Broadcasting Services—to punish an employee whose indiscretion antagonized a client.
But it’s also within the rights of an individual in possession of news to spread it—if that’s not central to the concept of journalism, what is? Russert’s death was sensitive, and NBC was in its rights to ask others to hold off on reporting it, but when it comes down to it, the information was not the private property of NBC News, and NBC should know that.
The idea of someone being punished for reporting news that was in fact true—in the name of appeasing a news organization, of all things—is unconscionable. I would hope that NBC News feels the same way, and that it would tell its contractor that.
[Update: The thread on this subject at Gawker is really interesting, as proof that these stories don’t break down into predictable new-media vs. old-media camps. The original Gawker post argues that it’s “hard to have any sympathy” for the canned employee. Meanwhile, a commenter counters, “There’s a lot of criticism about the objectivity of user based reporting – but I don’t imagine the same delicacy of sensibility was given for Anna Nicole-Smith’s family.”]