If it wasn’t an endorsement, what was it?

I helped Maira edit an excellent piece that she wrote for the EFF blog this week called “How Can the New York Times Endorse an Agreement the Public Can’t Read?” Fortunately, the article has gotten a lot of pickup, and I think it’s raising some very important questions that haven’t hit the mainstream. (In part because there hasn’t been much media coverage of the TPP at all, which in turn stems from the secrecy of the agreement—media organization unwilling to speculate about the contents or report on the secrecy itself are simply not going to cover it, which is kind of the point of the secrecy in the first place.)

The post hit the top of Hacker News, and some people in the discussion there (and in other places) suggested that the Times editorial in question is not in fact an endorsement, or that it’s a conditional endorsement only of a “good agreement” and without the suggestion that any particular draft of the TPP is, in fact, that. Sorry to those people, but I don’t buy that for a minute.

First, we’re talking about the Editorial section of the New York Times here. There’s no Twitter bio up top insisting that repeating the government line isn’t an endorsement. The entire purpose of that section is to represent the opinion of the editors; are we to believe that the editors are using this space to stake out the controversial claim that “a good agreement would be good”?

There’s the question of timing. Had this editorial come out, even word-for-word, at the beginning of the talks, it may not be an endorsement of the agreement but of the stated goals. But that argument doesn’t cut it just months out from the supposed completion date. Saying “Springfield needs a nuclear power plant” means one thing when the town is considering calling for bids, and quite another after Mr. Burns has broken ground. There has for at least 18 months been a process underway, and it has been outrageously secretive, and the Times does not mention that fact at all.

Newspaper endorsements are often explicit about using the word “endorse,” especially when talking about political candidates. It’s true that this editorial did not do so. But turning to the English definition of the word: it’s hard to imagine a layperson reading the piece and not coming away with the impression it provided support or approval of an agreement.

And frankly, if at this stage in the process the New York Times thinks it’s possible to produce a proverbial “good agreement” in a process that has defied transparency as brazenly as the TPP has, that’s an endorsement in itself.

We’re in a crucial stage of the campaign against the secret agreement that we believe—but of course cannot confirm—contains language that would absolutely be detrimental to Internet users everywhere. The “fast track authority” process, which the Obama administration has suggested is essential to passing the agreement but which strips away one more layer of accountability, is on the rocks.

An endorsement from the New York Times at this stage sure looks like a favor to the administration and a way to clear opposition on the left. Without any access to the text of the agreement, that uncomfortable assumption is hard to disprove. If the Times thinks it isn’t endorsing the agreement, I’m curious to know what it thinks it did. If it’s endorsing without access to the text, that is unforgivably reckless behavior for a newspaper. And if it has access to the text but won’t publish, it has lost sight of its duty to the public interest.

Published by Parker Higgins

I'm the Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and previously led copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I live and work in Brooklyn, New York. more »

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  1. @john, I had totally forgotten about this op-ed until you mentioned it. You’re right, it does strengthen the original argument.

  2. Ok — The NYT editorial was maybe needlessly wishy-washy. But words do matter. They didn’t endorse anything.

    In the Authors Guild vs HathiTrust case, high-priced attorneys have micro-parsed the term ‘a primary mission’ in section 121 of the US Copyright Act as to how many ‘primary’ missions an Authorized Entity might have.

  3. Well of course I agree words matter. If I didn’t think so I wouldn’t have laid out so many to argue about one word in particular. But we’ve come to different conclusions, because (as I’ve written at length) I think the editorial is an endorsement.

    What definition of “endorsement” are you using that the editorial doesn’t fit into it?

  4. When an endorsement is the official position taken on an issue by the editor or editorial board of a newspaper, it is an ‘endorsement’ when they say so regardless of what a dictionary definition of the word may say.

    This is an example of a NY Times endorsement:

    “For these and many other reasons, we enthusiastically endorse President Barack Obama for a second term, and express the hope that his victory will be accompanied by a new Congress willing to work for policies that Americans need.”

    BTW http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/10/28/opinion/presidential-endorsement-timeline.html

  5. I see your examples as a suggestion to think words matter less. If your definition of “endorsement” is “something to which the New York Times adds a tag that says ‘presidential endorsement’ so it shows up in that category,” then sure, this doesn’t fit. That’d be an example, I think, of “CMSs matter.”

    But words matter. They mean things. An endorsement is a public or official statement of support or approval. That’s what the Times did here. (That’s why I wrote this.)

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