The company's new rules, obtained by Wired, instruct staff to avoid expressing "political views" or taking "stands on contentious issues."
And how does the organization justify this gag order on staff? "We all have a stake in upholding the AP's reputation for fairness and impartiality, which has been one of our chief assets for more than 160 years," the company states.
With this policy, the AP is pretty much restricting employees' ability to use social networking sites meaningfully. People don't visit Twitter or Facebook just to learn the day's current events, but to see their friends' take on the news.
Still, that part of the AP's directive is more or less consistent with policies of many other mainstream news organizations that tell journalists to keep their opinions to themselves.
But the AP goes beyond just telling employees to keep quiet. The organization also proposes that employees should censor their friends. "It's a good idea to monitor your profile page to make sure material posted by others doesn't violate AP standards; any such material should be deleted," states the policy.
In other words, the AP is warning that it could take action against reporters for comments that were posted by third parties they don't control. Even though those posts could be up for hours, maybe days, before the AP's journalists have the opportunity to sign in and view them, much less delete them.
There's a reason why Congress decided years ago that Web companies like Craigslist, MySpace and Facebook shouldn't face liability for users' comments. One of the main justifications for that policy (set out in the Communications Decency Act), is that the Web allows people to post comments instantly, without waiting for pre-approval. If sites were liable for user comments, publishers would have to screen posts in advance, which would cripple the interactive nature of the medium.
But the AP, apparently, has no problem suggesting that reporters should be responsible for posts by third parties.
This social networking policy isn't the first time that AP management has shown it doesn't understand the Web. The news service recently complained about blogs excerpting short quotes from news articles -- even though that's probably considered a fair use under copyright law. The company also has lamented the "misappropriation" of its content online, apparently relying on a 100-year-old doctrine that allows publishers to restrict the distribution of "hot news."
While the concept might have made sense in the early 1900s, it's not at all clear how any news organization can legitimately argue it should retain "exclusive" rights to the news in the Internet era.