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Blawger's Blast Heard Around the (Toy) World

No one would ever accuse Walter Olson of mincing words at his blog Overlawyered. But his particularly damning words yesterday for a New York Times editorial about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act were music to the ears of the choir of CPSIA critics. "Clueless. Disgraceful. Grossly ill-informed. And cruelly hard-hearted toward families and businesses across the country that are facing economic ruin," Olson said of the NYT's stance. By day's end, Forbes.com had picked up Olson's post and reprinted it as editorial commentary.

Toys containing lead paint were the danger that spurred Congress to pass the CPSIA last year. But the resulting legislation went well beyond toys to become the most significant overhaul of consumer product safety laws since the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972. The NYT editorial describes the law "as providing the safety net that consumers assumed they already had" and it criticized the CPCS for delaying implementation of important aspects of the law. "The delay has caused confusion and allowed opponents to foment needless fears that the law could injure smaller enterprises like libraries, resale shops and handmade toy businesses."

For Olson, those were fighting words. He took offense at the editorial's suggestion that small businesses and others who feared the impact of the law were "just imagining things."

So small enterprises from coast to coast are just imagining things if they plead desperately for places like the Times to notice that they have already closed down, or will have to do so in the foreseeable future, or have lost thousands of dollars in unsalable inventories. Motorbike dealerships around the country are just imagining things if they think they’re staring at massive losses from the inability to sell their products, even though news-side talent at the New York Times has in fact covered their story well -- coverage which the editorial studiously ignores.

By taking this position, Olson asserted, the NYT made itself "a laughingstock." It appears that a chorus of bloggers agreed. By Olson's own count, they included: Virginia Postrel, Christopher Fountain, Patrick @ Popehat, Carter Wood/ShopFloor, Mike Cernovich, Katherine Mangu-Ward/Reason “Hit and Run”, Jonathan Adler @ Volokh Conspiracy, Memeorandum, Above the Law, Tim Sandefur, Mark Thompson/Donklephant, Alison Morris/Publisher’s Weekly Shelftalker, Jacob Grier, Amy Alkon/Advice Goddess.

Although Olson had no praise for the NYT's editorial writers, he earlier found others in the news media who distinguished themselves for their coverage of this issue. That coverage, in turn, "was a triumph of social media," he wrote, sparked by blogs and tweets that put the issue in the spotlight.

Olson's take on media coverage was echoed by legal-media observer Mark Obbie, who initially accused major newspapers of dropping the ball on this important consumer story but then saw some uptick in their coverage. Still, the NYT and the Washington Post remained scant in their coverage, causing Obbie to wonder:

What's going on here? I usually reject conspiracy theories by partisan media critics, based on my experience. But in this case, I do suspect a bias -- one based on big-time journalists' inability to connect to a concern voiced mainly by handicraft sellers, thrift shops, and second-hand retailers.

At least one thing, for sure, is going on here. As Olson suggests, we are once again witnessing the power of social media to steer the course of public debate.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on February 19, 2009 at 11:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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