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NPR's Mixed Messages
Is NPR living up to its mission?

"Linking to or framing of any material on this site without the prior written consent of NPR is prohibited."

It?s been almost a decade since I heard the fierce noise only a sandbag levee can make when it gives up the fight but I swear I could hear an echo when the response started to roll in to National Public Radio?s efforts to tame the Web.

NPR may only be the latest example -- Belo and Knight Ridder come to mind -- but it is to me the most alarming.  Not only does NPR want to control so-called deep links like the one to its linking permission form, the warning that any link is verboten without prior written consent literally means NPR wants to approve this link to its front page.

To make matters worse (didn?t think it was possible, huh?), the form NPR wants filled out appears to have been designed as the Internet equivalent of a moat meant to keep people from even wanting to approach the castle.  No requests for serial numbers but they want everything else including a description of the ?entity that controls the Web site,? contact info for the person who will maintain the link, the home page and link page URLs for the site, and the length of time the link will be up.

Just mention the word ?link? to NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin and you can feel him shudder over the phone line.

To give NPR credit, they say they?re listening to ?thoughtful insights that have prompted us to reevaluate this policy.? Maria Thomas, the vice president of online operations for NPR, says the altered policy isn?t ready yet and it would be premature to discuss the possible changes.

Just mention the word ?link? to NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin and you can feel him shudder over the phone line.  The outcry that started in the weblog world and continued through Wired turned into a deluge for Dvorkin, the broadcaster/Web site operator?s first line of defense.

Says Dvorkin, ?I think NPR discovered that it was slightly out of sync with the rest of the cyberworld and NPR has decided that it?s going to rewrite its policy and bring it up to date.? Dvorkin wasn?t responsible for the policy and isn?t among those making the changes.  

?It?s clearly a policy that doesn?t make a lot of sense,? Dvorkin said. ?It makes sense at a certain level, the original idea being that people who are advocates or are politically partisan or commercial aggregators of commercial content need our permission but 95 percent of the rest don?t.?

Despite what it might look like to folks like me, Dvorkin says the broadcaster?s legal department doesn?t have a ?control fetish.? He adds, ?I don?t think we?re trying to control it. I think we just want to know who wants to use it.?

Which, unfortunately, still sounds a lot like control. If I create an online list of Web resources on Middle East coverage and want to include NPR.org?s Middle East portal, a noteworthy effort that makes transcripts and audio archives available for free, I don?t think that should require written permission from NPR or anyone else on the list. Dvorkin explains that the problem would be ?if you are using NPR?s material in a way that tries to imply that NPR is endorsing your opinion.?

He admits there?s already a response for content misuse in the NPR arsenal; ?usually a short, sharp letter from a lawyer works wonders.?

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NPR?s published rationale via the Web site we?re not supposed to link to: ?The policy was originally intended to maintain NPR?s commitment to independent, noncommercial journalism. We have encountered instances where companies and individuals constructed entire commercial Web ?radio? sites based on links to NPR and similar audio. We have also encountered Web sites of issue advocacy groups that have positioned the audio link to an NPR story such that one cannot tell that NPR is not supporting their cause. This is not acceptable to NPR as an organization dedicated to the highest journalistic ethics, both in fact and appearance.?

Point taken. NPR has the right to prohibit use of its logo or inappropriate use of its content. I?m all for respect. That?s the only way any of this works. But -- and after listening to Dvorkin I?m willing to believe NPR didn?t mean to sound quite so totalitarian -- there?s a difference between asking for respect and literally trying to make sure that only those of whom you approve can even link to your site, especially when enough law is already on the books to give Web site operators ammunition to go after any one who is causing real harm. Remind people they can only use the NPR logo with permission. Go after anyone who makes it appear as though NPR?s work is their own. Trounce those who would misuse it commercially.

[Last week, we at OJR were in the uncomfortable position of reminding another journalism outlet that even attribution doesn?t make it right to put someone?s byline over someone else?s work. Now the powers that be at OJR have published a statement for the site that will explain our policy, based on existing copyright law, when it comes to quoting work published on the site. We didn?t post a demand to clear all quotes and we certainly aren?t asking anyone to clear links in advance. We like links; they spread the word about our stories and bring in readers.]

But it?s unacceptable for NPR, an "organization dedicated to the highest journalistic ethics" with a commitment to "independent, noncommercial journalism," to attempt to solve these problems by squashing independence in others or by making it difficult for others to even promote their journalism via links to NPR.org.

This isn?t KPMG, the international accounting firm that, according to Wired, sent out letters telling linkers that the act required a formal relationship between the two parties. Even the KPMG legal team seems to have grokked that it was on the wrong track; the current policy spells out ?link activities? that are prohibited and reserves the right to ask for a link to be removed. Like most sites that like to control use of their links, KPMG has no problem using ?Third Party Links? for the convenience of ?our users.?

According to the history on NPR.org, NPR?s very mission is ?to provide leadership in national newsgathering and production and to provide the first permanent nationwide interconnection of non-commercial stations.?

How unfortunate that it took making such a bad decision to drive home that NPR has the same responsibilities when it comes to the Web.