Opinion

Jack Shafer

When editors bury that which cannot die

Jack Shafer
Jul 11, 2012 15:41 UTC

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.

Jonah Lehrer’s recycling business

Jack Shafer
Jun 20, 2012 23:38 UTC

“Write every piece three times,” the late Richard Strout used to advise journalists who craved advancement in the profession.

Strout, who wrote the New Republic’s TRB column for four decades and worked 60 years as a Washington correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wasn’t calling on his colleagues to submit identical copies of their work to different publications for payment, as New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer just got busted for.

Strout was more subtle. If, for example, you were a freelancer who had just penned a slice-of-life piece for the New Republic about a coal strike in West Virginia, the only way to earn back your investment of time on such a low-paying piece was to spin off a similar yet distinctive version, maybe to the Outlook section of the Washington Post. If you could reconstitute elements of the narrative into a work that fed the policy debate over unions, your efforts were legitimate. After satisfying those two outlets, a smart freelancer would shoot for the glossies with a big coal-strike feature, perhaps the New York Times Magazine or the Atlantic. Sometimes the publish-every-piece-three-times impetus has come not from writers, but from editors who, having seen a writer’s earlier work on a topic, wanted a localized version of the writer’s story.

How to think about plagiarism

Jack Shafer
Oct 14, 2011 21:50 UTC

An editor must have a heart like leather. Not freshly tanned leather—all supple and yielding like a baby’s bum—but like an abandoned baseball glove that’s been roasting in the Sonoran Desert for five or six years. Only those who are hard of heart can properly deal with the plagiarists who violate the journalistic code.

I’m pleased to report that this morning Politico‘s top editors, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rock-hearted in resolving charges that their reporter, Kendra Marr, lifted material from the New York Times, the Associated Press, Scripps Howard, Greenwire, The Hill, and elsewhere for at least seven of her stories with no attribution. Marr has resigned. Harris and VandeHei’s compact statement about Marr’s disgrace doesn’t use the word plagiarism, but should, as my friend the press critic Craig Silverman points out. I agree.

“There are no mitigating circumstances for plagiarism,” the cold, cold heart of Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli stated earlier this year after Post reporter Sari Horwitz got caught stealing copy from the Arizona Republic.

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