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 Journal, Huffington 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.