Potter: OK to Spoil Ending?

Todd Gitlin remembers a 1975 issue of The New Yorker as if it came out this week. Pauline Kael, the movie critic, reviewed Woody Allen's "Love and Death." But when Gitlin read the review he unexpectedly heard every funny joke. Now Gitlin avoids reviews, except the first paragraph, which he skims to see if the movie is good or not. "That experience actually changed my life," recalls Gitlin, who teaches ethics at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

A lot has happened in the three decades since Gitlin had his epiphany, especially in the ways we get our news—the multiplicity of television stations and networks, the Internet and online news sites and bloggers. But the question hasn't changed: in an age where cultural happenings migrate from the arts section to the front page all the time, do journalists break the "news" about endings and plots if they know ahead of time? Put more bluntly, if we found out ahead of time how the final installment of "Harry Potter" turns out, should we tell our readers before the book is in stores? In disclosing, we'd ruin the fun. But in withholding, we're deferring news judgment to readers and book publishers. Not to mention buying into the Scholastic Books' publicity machine. "There's a cultural benefit to the suspension of knowledge," Gitlin argues. "But that grates on the standard journalism idea about the omniscience of journalism."

Before "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" goes on sale at midnight July 21, one of the 12 million copies in the record-breaking first print run is almost sure to leak out. Given the number of people obsessed with this story—from children to blogging fans to university professors willing to comment on everything from plot points to the emotional damage sustained by young readers when the tale is told—is it not likely that someone will spill the beans? How "Harry Potter" ends is news, after all. But are J. K. Rowling's pages news in the same sense that the Pentagon Papers were? Obviously not, but this time, the stakes are especially high: readers have been waiting nearly 10 years for a conclusion that could land in headlines before the final page reaches their hands. "It is news to be the first one to tell the world how the book ends, but there's a virtuous self-censorship that's part of journalism's compact with the public," says Samuel G. Freedman, a professor who teaches "Critical Issues in Journalism" at Columbia. "We're not talking about an urgent matter of great public interest—this isn't Abu Ghraib."

Freedman compares an early release of "Harry Potter" to other cultural criticism. Each time a new movie or Broadway play premiers, journalists are invited early to prepare reviews that can be released opening day (for that matter, anyone can attend a play while it is in previews). It is understood that theater critics will not review plays before opening night. The rules for movie previews are a little looser, but the movie studios hold all the cards, and if a reviewer continually reviews early, he or she could be barred from preview screenings. All plays are previewed—and again, anyone can attend a preview—but not all movies, and the assumption among most critics is that a movie that isn't screened early is probably a stinker. Book reviewers, like movie reviewers, get an advanced look at what the public hasn't seen yet. Or at least they usually do. With "Harry Potter," the rules are different for book reviewers and bookstore owners—anyone who usually gets an advanced peek. At author Rowling's request, her publishers release the books to everyone, reporters and reviewers included, at the same time.

In 2003, Scholastic Books and Rowling sued the New York Daily News for printing excerpts from the fifth novel in the series, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." The newspaper had obtained a rogue copy from a Brooklyn bookstore that wasn't following release-date rules and had placed the books, mistakenly, on their shelves. The case was settled out of court, and according to a Daily News spokeswoman, the paper is pleased with the settlement. At the time, the paper contended that it had done nothing wrong and was merely following news practices. After all, every media outlet deals with the pressure boiling up when bloggers, or anyone on the Internet, is given free space to voice their own speculations or personal scoops. Shouldn't traditional media outlets beat out these amateurs? "Part of this is more tawdry," Freedman says. "The Internet is driving everyone into print or broadcast." He remembers the finale of another cultural craze, "M*A*S*H." In pre-Internet times, audiences had no pulpit from which to guess the fate of B.J. and Hawkeye. Now that they do, journalists are merely playing catch-up.

That's the benefit of releasing leaked information about Harry Potter before it's available on the bookshelves. It's not illegal. It may be unethical. But there's absolute demand. "We live in a culture where people want information," says Susie Linfield, the chair of New York University's Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program. "It's a newspaper's job to give us the facts about what the situation is in Iraq. But in a book, there's no obligation to disclose the ending of an imaginative world." And if anyone does reveal the ending of "Harry Potter," they'd better count on retribution, and not the imaginary kind either.

Potter: OK to Spoil Ending? | Culture