When editors bury that which cannot die

July 11, 2012

When Tom Waits sang, “You can’t unring a bell,” on the album One From the Heart, he was saying that even if we shove all of life’s mistakes and embarrassments down the memory hole, they still ding-a-ling-ding-ding from the beyond.

For reasons mysterious, not all media outlets have gotten that message. Yesterday, Poynter’s Steve Myers reported that NPR erased from its website an entire story about a Kabul execution by contributor Ahmad Shafi that was plagiarized in part from a Jason Burke piece in the March 2001 edition of the London Review of Books. NPR replaced the Web page with an editor’s note explaining the copy theft, but deleted the story.

NPR’s deletion was silly. As Myers reported, the plagiarized account can still be found elsewhere on the Web. If and when that site removes the page, the Wayback Machine or some archivist or Google Cache will have preserved it for inquiring minds. If those sites do not cough up the story, email me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and I’ll exercise my fair-use right by forwarding a copy of the NPR piece for your educational and research purposes.

Why shouldn’t acts of plagiarism committed online be preserved online for study and enlightenment? Publishers don’t attempt to collect and destroy the newspapers, magazines or books they sell if they are later found to contain works of plagiarism. Nor do the copyright cops invade libraries to snip from the newspaper microfilm rolls the frames that are later discovered to have contained plagiarized material. We’ve wisely agreed that instances of print plagiarism should be preserved for study and for re-judgment in case the accused is innocent – and yes, also for fingerpointing.

NPR isn’t the only publication stoking the memory hole this summer. The Wall Street JournalHuffington Post and Yale’s New Journal deleted pieces by Liane Membis from their websites last month after elements of her work were shown to have been fabricated, as this story by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon explained. The Hearst-owned New Canaan News recently fired Paresh Jha for fabricating sources and quotes in more than two dozen stories, which the publication has removed from its website. Even those bad boys at tech ‘n’ gadget site Gizmodo briefly indulged the instinct to hide their embarrassment this week by deep-sixing a flawed report on Apple before coming to their senses and reposting the piece with a correction and an apology for their self-censoring ways.

Poynter’s Craig Silverman has a lovely term for the trash-binning of defective works of journalism: “Scrubbing.” In a 2008 Columbia Journalism Review piece, Silverman documented two examples of publications deleting from their archives whole articles that contained errors. Silverman, a friend of mine, wrote wisely: “The new permanence of news makes it more important than ever to initially get a story right, lest an error rocket around the world. But when prevention fails, a suitable correction must follow.” (It’s worth a parenthetical that NPR didn’t have to worry about unpublishing stories before it started publishing on the Web. Stories went up and out into the ether and disappeared unless somebody looked them up on Nexis or the show was rebroadcast.)

Some publications indulge the temptation to unpublish because the Web makes it easy – a matter of pressing a few buttons. “I think they see it as compounding the damage to keep it online. The idea that removing it also scrubs away the evidence comes secondary to them,” Silverman told me.

But the unpublishers are wrong: Preserving flawed copy – stolen or fabricated – for reader inspection can have several salutary effects. It can demonstrate to readers that journalists are willing to pay more than lip service to the idea that a public record shouldn’t be tampered with. It can provide useful data for readers to interpret: They can either distrust the publication because of the frequency with which it screws up or have faith in the publication because it transparently corrects its meaningful errors. Preservation can also go a long way toward refuting that old cliché: “It’s not that journalists have thin skins, it’s that they have no skins.” And finally, it’s the only known way of turning a giant sash of shame into a tiny badge of honor.

When journalists avail themselves of the memory hole, they do so only because they know they can. None believe in their hearts that they should.


Have I ever written such a Poyntercentric column before? And wait, there’s more on the Poynter front! Feel free to stick this in your memory hole: Every other week, I do a paid chat on the Poynter website. Send directions to the Poynter Institute campus to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. The only Tweets I erase from my Twitter feed are misfires: Tweets containing typos or Tweets that were intended as direct messages and accidentally posted for all to see. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: A man goes through garbage cans in Madrid, June 29, 2012. REUTERS/Susana Vera


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Were I in NPR’s shoes, I would have done the same – had they left the article up, they would have been accused of mining plagiarized material for ad revenue, which would certainly harm their reputation more than pulling down an intern’s partially stolen work. I think NPR does understand that the mistake isn’t going to go away, given their public apology on the matter – the “Streisand Effect” is well-documented and understood by most major media outlets – so this seems to have been the optimal means of handling the issue from a PR perspective.

Posted by DCA331 | Report as abusive

d’accord x m.r

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

Dude, you just don’t like paying heed to any laws do you? It also seems that you often write that others should break laws that help you be a better journalist. I’m really starting to wonder what groups you are associated with.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

A book publisher would not include plagiarized material in a new printing of a book and may well stop an existing printing if the material were believed to be stolen.

That is, the analogy between print and online publishing isn’t a clean one. Publication is continuous and by leaving the file accessible on the server, the publisher continues to publish–something they would not do in the print world.

You focus only on the archive. And it’s true that print publisher’s don’t try to expunge previously printed records of their mistakes and misdeeds. But perhaps the Wayback Machine and the various other caches–personal and institutional–are better analogues to print archives than the production servers maintained by the publisher, which, as I say, have the dual role of “printing” the current and archiving the past.

At any rate, I can’t give you the win on this one. I think if NPR tried to remove the content and pretend it never happened, you’d have a clear case. If they maintain the URL and substitute a summary of the affair, I can’t really blame them. Again, no book publisher could crank out a new printing with a prepended announcement that one of the essays was plagiarized from another author. Nor, I imagine, would the victim of the plagiarism sit still for such. But that appears to be your suggested course of action here.

Posted by ejsofel | Report as abusive


Is your personal editorial tour de force (the “MonkeyFish” saga) still on line?

Answer: NO! Nor should it be.

You are either a hypocrite or an amnesiac. (I forget which!)


Posted by OlivesDad | Report as abusive