Opinion

Jack Shafer

Plagiarists’ real crime? Ripping off readers.

Jack Shafer
Jul 29, 2014 22:19 UTC

A man reads a newspaper in the auditorium before the lectures for the 15th biennial International Anti-Corruption Conference in Brasilia

The plagiarists are back in the news, taking public beatings for allegedly having filed refried copy at BuzzFeed, the New York Times, and the United States Army War College, where Senator John Walsh, (D-Mont.), has just been busted for lifting portions of his 2007 master’s degree paper.

Of course, plagiarists — like shoplifters — are always with us, pinching small and large chunks of stuff that doesn’t belong to them. So I don’t think this week’s news necessarily means that a new plague of plagiarism has descended upon us, only that the law of averages decided to harvest three perpetrators at roughly the same time.

To answer the question of why somebody would commit plagiarism, you would first have to answer why somebody would shoplift. Plagiarism, like shoplifting, is a crime of optimism. Both plagiarists and shoplifters know what they’re doing is wrong. They know the odds of getting caught are high and getting higher, thanks to the advent of search engines and security cameras. They know disgrace will follow, they might lose their jobs, and in the case of shoplifting, their imprudence may earn them jail time. But as optimists, plagiarists and shoplifters ignore the nasty weather awaiting them and sail on, assuming that somehow they’ll outrun the storm.

I once believed that only the talentless plagiarized, just as I once believed that only the hungry shoplift. But too many accomplished journalists have helped themselves to words published by others without attribution, as this 1995 piece by Trudy Lieberman in the Columbia Journalism Review documented: the mature Fox Butterfield did it and so did the young Nina Totenberg. More recently, experienced Washington Post reporters Sari Horwitz and William Booth were reprimanded for plagiarism. The list goes on: Fareed Zakaria, Gerald Posner, Alexei Barrionuevo. Even our vice president, Joseph R. Biden, plagiarized a law review article while he was in law school. During his run for the 1988 Democratic Party presidential nomination, he plagiarized from a British politician’s speeches.

My friend Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post believes it’s a mistake to treat all cases of copy-lifting equally, preferring to separate what he calls “real plagiarism” from the sort of petite (my word) plagiarism that Benny Johnson of BuzzFeed committed. Real plagiarism, in Weingarten’s view, requires a writer to purloin copy that has “intrinsic value” and “original insight.” So when Molly Ivins pirated from Clive James the phrase “a condom stuffed with walnuts” to describe Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body (and for which Weingarten busted Ivins in 2004), that constituted real plagiarism. But when BuzzFeed’s Johnson helped himself to less-than-creative copy from Yahoo Answers, Wikipedia, the Guardian, U.S. News & World Report, and others for his BuzzFeed pieces, his conduct was “sleazy and lazy and bad” and “crap,” but falls short of real plagiarism because what he took was of boilerplate quality, writes Weingarten.

Who to believe? The Times’s anonymous sources or the Journal’s?

Jack Shafer
Jun 19, 2014 13:38 UTC

U.S. President Obama speaks about the situation in Iraq at the White House

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal staked mutually exclusive territories on Wednesday in their coverage of the Obama administration’s plans to arrest or temper the Sunni militant rampage in Iraq, the essence of which was captured in their headlines.

“Obama Is Said to Consider Selective Airstrikes on Sunni Militants,” wrote the Times, bending the president into an action-figure’s warrior stance. Meanwhile, the Journal portrayed the president as a thoughtful, let’s-consider-all-the-alternatives sort of leader, with its categorical headline reading, “U.S. Rules Out Iraq Airstrikes for Now: President Barack Obama Is Opting to Pursue Alternate Strategies.”

“Dueling headlines” sprout in the pages of major newspapers with such frequency that you could run a semi-regular column juxtaposing them for a laugh, as the Michael Kinsley-era New Republic once did. The news quarrels with itself for dozens of reasons: two outlets might interpret fresh economic data differently or disagree about the deeper meaning of a new judicial opinion. In other instances, a simpler explanation suffices: One news organization got it right and the other wrong.

The source may be anonymous, but the shame is all yours

Jack Shafer
Jun 16, 2014 22:49 UTC

 Bob Woodward, former Washington Post reporter, discusses about Watergate Hotel burglary and stories for the Post at Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda

Twice over the past two weeks, New York Times reporters got taken for long rides by anonymous sources who ultimately dropped them off at the corner of Mortified and Peeved.

The first embarrassing trip for the Times came on May 31, as the paper alleged in a Page One story that a federal insider trading investigation was “examining” golfer Phil Mickelson’s “well-timed trades” in Clorox stock, according to “people briefed on the investigation.” On June 11, the Times rowed the story back — citing anonymous sources again, namely “four people briefed on the matter” — calling the original story about Mickelson’s role “overstated.” Mickelson did not, the paper reported, trade shares of Clorox.

Heads bowed, the new Times article explained the error: “The overstated scope of the investigation came from information provided to the Times by other people briefed on the matter who have since acknowledged making a mistake.”

Finding the real Bowe Bergdahl in the fog of news

Jack Shafer
Jun 11, 2014 22:51 UTC

 A sign of support of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is seen in Hailey, Idaho

All news reports are provisional, especially breaking news reports. That which the press states unequivocally tonight may well be retracted by dawn — and then with only a small acknowledgment, much in the way that a TV station’s meteorologist glosses over the fact that the hailstorm he promised for sunrise never arrived.

This message applies to all stories, big and small, and to all news outlets. Today, I single out the New York Times not because I think the Times is a shoddy, careless newspaper but because it is among the best, and its recent miscue in an important breaking story illustrates exactly how abruptly the so-called known facts in a news story can change in short order.

In the first paragraph of its June 3, page A1 story titled “G.I.’s Vanishing Before Capture Angered His Unit,” the Times stated that on the night of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s June 30, 2009, disappearance, he “left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life.” The Times report was promptly repeated by the Daily Mail Online, the Associated Press, Fox News Channel, NBCNews.com, and many other outlets because the Times has a reputation for sober, exacting reporting.

Heroin’s fictional comeback

Jack Shafer
May 20, 2014 22:24 UTC

 

heroinFor a drug that has never ever gone away, heroin sure has a talent for coming back every couple of years. On Tuesday, the New York Times advanced the belief that a “flood of heroin” is flowing into New York City in a Page One story titled “New York Is a Hub in a Surging Heroin Trade.”

One difference between a conventional flood and a heroin flood is that a conventional is easier to measure: Plant a tall pole next to the body of water you’re observing, mark the pole with hash-marks in feet or meters, and record the rising water levels. But no such simple technology exists to accurately measure the flow of heroin into or out of a city. To use rising seizure statistics to estimate a surge in the heroin trade is like drawing a bath, stepping into it, and declaring that a flood has ravaged your tub.

The government statistics the Times cites sound impressive. “The amount of heroin seized in investigations involving the city’s special narcotics prosecutor has already surpassed last year’s totals, and is higher than any year going back to 1991,” the paper declares. In the first four months of 2014, we’re told, the city’s special narcotics prosecutor has recorded the seizure of 288 pounds of heroin, which does not include everyday seizures on the streets.

Dressing up the NYT with fins, chrome and glitter

Jack Shafer
Apr 8, 2014 15:02 UTC

At the beginning of April, the New York Times launched its “Times Premier” digital offering, accessible to Times home delivery subscribers for another $10 every four weeks, on top of what they are already paying. A bewildering product, it seeks to up-sell existing Times customers to a more deluxe version of the Times.

But isn’t the Times supposed to be the deluxe version of the Times in the first place? It’s one thing for Scientology to charge you thousands and thousands of dollars to reach the highest level only to find out there is another level, and to reach it you have to pay again. But Scientology is selling transcendence, and the last time I looked the Times is selling only the news and a useful status chit.

Lured by a free-trial offer, I immersed myself in Times Premier to assess its value — and believe that it can only get better. One of the privileges of Times Premier membership is “Times Insider,” a room-inside-the-newsroom in which Times reporters and editors explain how the paper creates its wonderful variety of authoritative journalism. At present, Times Insider has obituary pro Margalit Fox on how Times obits are written, political reporter Jodi Kantor on the rejection notices a variety of Times reporters have received in their day, standards czar Philip B. Corbett on stylebook deliberations at the paper, and so on.

The Times advances the NSA’s amnesty-for-Snowden trial balloon

Jack Shafer
Jan 2, 2014 23:32 UTC

Of course the New York Times editorial page wants clemency or, at the very least, a generous plea bargain for National Security Agency contractor turned super-leaker Edward Snowden! The news pages of the New York Times have directly benefited from top-secret leaks from Snowden to break stories since last August, when the paper acquired a cache of his NSA material from the Guardian. (The Guardian published its own “pardon for Snowden” editorial today.) In urging leniency for Snowden, the Times editorial page is urging leniency for a specific news-pages source, which the editorial doesn’t directly state. If that doesn’t define enlightened self-interest, nothing does.

The Times editorial page operates independently from the Times news operation, so I’m not suggesting that Executive Editor Jill Abramson instructed Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal what to write. But on this score, she probably didn’t even have to stifle the urge. For the last decade, the news side has been breaking stories about warrantless surveillance by the NSA, a secret bank-data surveillance program, and, via WikiLeaks, the war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. diplomatic cables. The editorial page has lectured the government on its overreach and incompetence in the security realm. Abramson and Rosenthal, who report to the same publisher, obviously harmonize on this score. Even if they didn’t, it’s unlikely in the extreme that a Times editorial would ever call for a Times news-side source to be seated in a Judas Cradle as punishment for leaking to the press.

Did I say unlikely in the extreme? Allow me to reverse my course. Not every editorial page is buckled to its news pages. Take the Washington Post for example.

Does anyone still work at the ‘New York Times’?

Jack Shafer
Nov 15, 2013 22:21 UTC

Recent defections of talent from the New York Times — Nate Silver, David Pogue, Jeff Zeleny, Richard Berke, Brian Stelter, Matt Bai, et al. — have unjelled the media firmament, according to Politico media columnist Dylan Byers. In a piece this week, Byers called the departures “a brain drain,” “a sucker punch to staff morale,” and an opportunity for the paper to come “face to face with a harsh reality” that in the new media age, its star journalists can no longer be satisfied by the “‘aura’ of the newspaper of record.” In the same day’s Huffington Post, Michael Calderone had the paper fretting about its “retention rate,” adding the names of Don Van Natta Jr., Lisa Tozzi, Judy Battista, Howard Beck, and Eric Wilson to the list of departees.

The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple neutered Byers’s observation by noting that if anybody is suffering a brain drain, it’s Politico, shifting the discussion from the-Times-ain’t-the-ultimate-destination-it-once-was of Byers to the more durable assertion by Wemple that retaining-good-people-has-never-been-easy-for-any-outlet-and-it-ain’t-getting-easier. My view comports more closely to Wemple’s, but that doesn’t mean Byers is full of it. The Times departures mean something. But what?

The exodus of accomplished Times reporters to television has been going on for so long that the exits of Jeff Zeleny to ABC News earlier this year and Brian Stelter to CNN this week barely deserve our notice. For as long as broadcasters have been flush, they’ve had their pick of New York Times newsroom stars. Among the earliest stars to step under the lights was John F. Kieran, the paper’s first sports columnist, who hosted a syndicated TV show in the late 1940s and early 1950s after success in radio. William H. “Bill” Lawrence worked at the Times for 20 years, as White House correspondent and other roles, before joining ABC News in 1961. In 1972, the paper’s Supreme Court reporter, Fred Graham, moved to CBS News where he worked for 15 years, and in 1979, Jim Wooten joined ABC News from the paper. After Hedrick Smith left the Times in 1988, he created 26 prime-time specials and mini-series for PBS, also working as a special correspondent for its NewsHour program. Charlayne Hunter-Gault spent 10 years at the Times before going to The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1978. Terence Smith made the migration to television in 1985, Bill Geist in 1987, Gwen Ifill in 1994, Buster Olney in 2003, and earlier this year, Susan Saulny joined ABC News from the paper.

Journalism’s new Marquee Brothers

Jack Shafer
Aug 21, 2013 22:03 UTC

When Nate Silver packed his FiveThirtyEight.com flag into a box this summer and trundled it from the New York Times, where it had flown for the last three years, for planting at ESPN, he cemented his status as one of the Marquee Brothers, that fraternity of overachieving reporters whose journalistic triumphs have inspired media outlets to grant them nation-state status inside the greater organization.

In exchange for a mountain of ESPN cash and the authority to hire a team of his own, Silver will now apply his statistical hoo-doo to every sporting event, political twist, weather record and market phenomenon for which sufficient data has been assembled. In addition to running the sports numbers for ESPN on his own site, scheduled to launch January 1, Silver will also be performing political and polling analysis for the network’s cousin, ABC News. “Sports might be a third of the content,” he said about his site. “Politics might be a third.”

Other brotherhood members include Ezra Klein, the lord of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog; Walt Mossberg, perhaps the Ur-brother, whose Wall Street Journal column about personal tech birthed a conference business and more at All Things D [see addendum below]; Andrew Ross Sorkin, the founder and boss of DealBook at the Times; Andrew Sullivan, whose AndrewSullivan.com crew has operated inside  Time magazine, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and is now independent; the Freakonomics guys (economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner), who were indie, set up shop at the Times, and went back to being indie, and the various sports stars, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who captains The MMQB, and Bill Simmons, who does a slew of things for ESPN, Grantland (founded 2011), The B.S. Report and TV. (Depending on how liberally you want to define the brotherhood, baseball writer Peter Gammons may also fit. He just launched Gammons Daily for TruMedia Networks.)

Nate Silver and a general theory of media exodus

Jack Shafer
Jul 22, 2013 21:44 UTC

The defection of statistics-wrangler Nate Silver from the status peaks of the New York Times for the flatlands of ESPN and ABC News puts a dent in the newspaper’s self-esteem and the orthodox view that for journalists, a Times position equals career success.

Instead of second-guessing Silver’s decision to leave the Valhalla of journalism, media writers are playing his move as a blow to the paper. Like LeBron James bolting Cleveland for Miami, writes Marc Tracy of the New Republic. “It’s a huge loss for the New York Times,” assesses USA Today’s Rem Rieder. ESPN and ABC “stole” Silver, as Politico‘s Mike Allen puts it, and in his new perch he’ll be allowed to expand beyond his FiveThirtyEight political stats-and-predictions blog to explore whole new realms of data journalism, including sports, education, economics, weather and Oscars predictions. “No way to sugarcoat this one: It’s a huge blow for the Times,” offers Forbes‘s Jeff Bercovici. “He’s outgrown the New York Times,” states Business Insider’s Walter Hickey.

Adding blood and broken bones to the psychic wounding others inflicted upon the Times was Adweek‘s headline, “Nate Silver Dumps New York Times for ESPN.”

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