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Maureen Dowd's Plagiarism, Cincinnati's Connection to a British Scandal and Problems at NPR

By Ben L. Kaufman · May 27th, 2009 · On Second Thought

I no longer regularly read the New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd. I take no delight in her Pulitzer-winning nastiness, even when I applaud her target being skewered.

For sheer vitriol, she has few rivals outside cable TV. So it was with schadenfreude that I read about her passing off a blogger’s material as her own and offering an explanation that further undermines her credibility.

She used an entire paragraph, almost verbatim, from Talking Points Memo blogger Joshua Marshall without crediting him. Here are both paragraphs. I’ve italicized the only change in her appropriation of his thoughts and words.

Dowd wrote: “More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.”

Marshall wrote: “More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.”

Her explanation came in a note to HuffingtonPost.com, which apparently caught or alerted her to the plagiarism. Here is her response with its idiosyncratic capitalization: “josh is right. I didn’t read his blog last week, and didn’t have any idea he had made that point until you informed me just now.

“i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent — and I assumed spontaneous — way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column.

“but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me. we're fixing it on the web, to give josh credit, and will include a note, as well as a formal correction tomorrow.”

Dowd further diminishes her victim by refusing to capitalize his name while capitalizing herself as “I”?

As for her explanation that Dowd remembered a whole paragraph from a conversation and it just happened to be what Marshall had just written, can I sell you a used New York Times correction?

There is an admission of plagiarism implicit in her denial and explanation. She used a full paragraph of another person’s words and ideas without giving her friend credit. Oh, I know that journalists always pick up ideas from others, but a whole paragraph verbatim? Most of us toss the ideas around and frame them in our own words if they fit into what we’re writing.

It gets wilder. Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell says the London Guardian really cocked up the story when it reported blogger Marshall as responding, “Now, I’m all for cutting & pasting. As a blogger I do it all the time, but I always give credit. So, if this isn’t outright plagiarism by a top NY Times Editorialist, than I’m a happily married, straight man with 4 kids, 2 dogs, a lovely 2nd wife of 15 years with a girl half my age on the side. Which I assure you all, I am not.”

As E&P’s Mitchell notes, Marshall didn’t say it. Rather, it was taken from a quote of another blogger at Talking Points Memo … whose name also is Joshua.

Dowd’s online column now carries the correction and attributes the quote to Marshall. The Guardian has removed the non-quote quote from its story.

And on his blog, Marshall finally addressed the issue: “I generally think we’re too quick to pull the trigger with charges of plagiarism. I haven’t said anything about this because I really didn’t think I had anything to add. Whatever the mechanics of how it happened, I never thought it was intentional. Dowd and The Times quickly corrected it, which I appreciated. And for me, that’s pretty much the end of it.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• Of course there’s a Cincinnati tie to the scandal of the Speaker of Britain’s House of Commons being forced to resign over lies and fraud in their expense accounts by Members of Parliament. Didn’t Galileo say that the sun revolves around the Queen City?

Joe Fenton, now a local editor at The Enquirer, was an early mentor to Heather Brooke, whose five-year Freedom of Information campaign in Great Britain forced Parliament to reveal its line-by-line misdeeds.

The irony is that a whistleblower — a former Army officer — finally obtained those records and gave them to the Daily Telegraph, not to Brooke.

For weeks, the Telegraph has been naming names and listing “expenses” from nonexistent mortgages to cleaning a country home moat. The political landscape is littered with wounded of both major parties.

While the Telegraph gets the attention, no one is scanting Brooke’s role in the revelations. London’s Independent says, “There are no words to express the gratitude due Heather Brooke for the long campaign that made it possible.”

Coincidentally, just as mentors encouraged her to dig and appreciate documents, so Brooke is doing the same thing for libel-averse British journalists who remain timid about using their relatively new Freedom of Information Act to hold government accountable.

The online Seattle Post Intelligencer’s profile on Brooke says “she credits a city editor in Spokane, a professor at the University of Washington, her colleagues and friends at The Daily and an investigative-reporting attitude throughout this state where, for the most part, she grew up. Brooke graduated from … UW’s communications school in 1993. She worked briefly as a reporter for The Spokesman Review.

“More importantly, Brooke participated in an annual internship where a UW professor takes communications students to Olympia to cover the state Legislature for newspapers scattered around the state. In this case, it was Professor Doug Underwood who helped her learn the ropes, she said. While in Olympia, she wrote for The Spokesman Review. Brooke later worked for a year in Spokane for The Spokesman Review, but there was no money to keep her, recalled then-city editor Joe Fenton, with lament.

“Fenton recalled giving Brooke, as a student, one of his favorite assignments — digging up documents on something. In this case, it was expense documents for the Washington Legislature. Her story wasn’t earth-shattering because, as she recalls, the legislators did little more than take advantage of their frequent-flier miles. But it planted a seed. She was surprised that the expense records were handed to her almost immediately, on the first visit.”

(She since has moved to England, where she initiated and pursued her battle to shake lose House of Commons expense accounts.)

“ ‘Heather loved digging around in records,’ said Fenton.” Last week, “Brooke sent an e-mail to Fenton thanking him for inspiring her penchant for records. Taking a break from the daylong meetings that plague an editor in his position, Fenton said he was deeply touched. ‘Wow, I reached somebody,’ he said.”

For a light touch on this British scandal, read John Burns in the May 20 New York Times. It’s a hoot.

And so is that same P-I story which notes that Brooke didn’t limit her student reporting to documents. She also wrote the student daily’s sex column, Intimate Rebellions.

“I knew this would come back to haunt me one day,” Brooke jokingly told the P-I reporter who reached in her England.

• The subject was Westwood and Cincinnati Councilman Jeff Berding. A WDBZ (1230 AM) caller said, “Westwood Concern is no more than a bunch of Jewish and Germans who know that they raped and robbed the black nation. They doin’ whatever they can in they power to keep it goin’ they way.”

Rather than challenge her assertion with its implied bigotry, WDBZ host Chris Smitherman, president of the local NAACP chapter, simply responded, “Alright, Bernadette, thank you, sis.” The transcription and recording are on vimeo.com.

• Interpretive journalism can be a joy to read. It takes talent and editors willing to grant the needed time. Yes, the stories are long, but they have to be if the reader is to say, “Oh, now I get it” or “Holy shit!” Two recent Enquirer stories meet those standards. On May 23, Greg Korte explained Byzantine machinations leading to the appointment of a new chairman of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. Korte’s story renews the perennial question about City Hall: “Why are the inmates still in charge?” On Sunday, May 24, Eileen Kelley dug into a stink arising from the Cincinnati Police mounted patrol. Kelley’s tale, however, suggests that none of the horses’ asses have four legs.

• Where are the local stories quoting physicians on the virtues of employees with flu staying home … and getting paid sick days? Or parents being paid to stay home from work to be with contagious children?What will local employers do if the Flying Pig Flu returns this coming winter? Fire sick employees who stay home unpaid? Praise those who bring their contagion to work? Sick days without pay are common in low-paid jobs, so those are the workers most likely to come in sick. Many are employed in the hospitality/restaurant trades. Great. Running noses serving runny brie.

• President Obama reneges on his promise to release photos of GIs mistreating prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying they could endanger Americans in those wars. That’s why the Army forbids torture and other painful abuses by its interrogators. It’s the abuse/torture, not the photos, that increase the risks to our forces. If we do it, why should enemies hesitate to abuse or torture captured U.S. troops? An analogy might be a “take no prisoners” order. That means more men are likely to be killed because there’s no safety in surrender.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Tom Friedman, the New York Times maven on everything, charged $75,000 for a speech to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

When James Rainey, the Los Angeles Times’ persistent media reporter, pressed Friedman’s employer about that fee, Friedman agreed to return it. NYTimes ethics guidelines allow speaking fees only from “educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus.” As the LATimes’ Rainey noted, that hardly fits Friedman’s hosts.

• Celebrity journalists are a problem. They command fees that can raise conflicts of interest. The Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey, who nudged Tom Friedman into returning a $75,000 fee (above), is right: It’s time for transparency on journalists’ outside income, even if we’re not celebrities. I’ll start. The University of Cincinnati pays me to teach part-time. I have an Enquirer pension. My Enquirer editors knew about my teaching and potential conflicts of interest when I was covering higher education. Next?

• It was the botched review that dared not speak its subjects’ names. NPR, film reviewer Nathan Lee and The Village Voice are enmeshed in a nasty argument over NPR editing of Lee’s review of the documentary, Outrage.

It names politicians whom it charges with hypocrisy in dealing with gay issues. So did reviewer Lee. NPR deleted the names of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and former Montana Sen. Larry Craig, named in the movie and review. NPR said their sexuality was private unless it impinged on their public responsibilities.

Critics say NPR is less reticent when it comes to public officials who stray in heterosexual relationships. The Village Voice jumped in, getting some facts wrong and publishing a clarification. NPR posted its corrections on a Poynter Institute blog site. No one comes out of this with any dignity except possibly reviewer Lee, who reasonably asks why the subjects of a film can’t be named in a review of the film.

NPR remained timid in its story on All Things Considered a few days later. It interviewed current and former members of Congress who are out-of-the-closet gays. Barney Frank, the first to come out and still is in Congress, made the same point as the film: The news media wouldn’t flinch from outing a legislator who voted for gun control and was a shooter, but when it comes to being gay/lesbian the news media help perpetuate the stigma that makes closeted gay public officials vulnerable to political blackmail.

• Have you noticed the absence of images from the civil war in Sri Lanka, the island, over the past 26 years? No one knows how many have died in the war between the Buddhist majority and Hindu separatists. The United Nations reports massive killing of civilians trapped with rebels; government artillery is not selective. No photos.

Other than refugee images which Sri Lankan government officials allow, almost nothing. Sri Lanka reminds us of what an authoritarian government can achieve when it decides it doesn’t want something reported.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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