Monthly Archives: May 2006

Watch what you say

I meant to link to this astounding story in yesterday’s New York Times, but Jon Keller beat me to it. The lead:

The American Civil Liberties Union is weighing new standards that would discourage its board members from publicly criticizing the organization’s policies and internal administration.

The great Nat Hentoff told the Times, “You sure that didn’t come out of Dick Cheney’s office? For the national board to consider promulgating a gag order on its members — I can’t think of anything more contrary to the reason the ACLU exists.”

What’s especially distressing about this is that we need the ACLU more than ever. Also yesterday, the ACLU launched a campaign aimed at getting to the bottom of the NSA spying matter. From the ACLU’s announcement:

ACLU affiliates in 20 states today filed complaints with Public Utility Commissions or sent letters to state Attorneys General and other officials demanding investigations into whether local telecommunications companies allowed the NSA to spy on their customers.

This is vital work. Obviously, though, the organization needs to do a better job of living up to its own principles.

How about everyone’s back yard?

The fight over the Nantucket wind farm is now morphing into a turf war — make that a surf war — between the rich folks of Nantucket Sound and the working class of Buzzards Bay.

Jay Cashman, who unveiled his Buzzards Bay windmill plan earlier this week, says it would supply half the energy needs of Cape Cod. The Nantucket competition, Cape Wind, claims that its project would cover three-quarters of the energy needs of the Cape and Islands.

Gov. Mitt Romney, a Cape Wind opponent, has in the past talked about the Berkshires as an alternative.

Well, Media Nation has an idea: Why not build all three? Is there a more pressing need in this country than new sources of clean, renewable energy? Or am I making too much sense?

The crystal ball

I’m going to make a prediction. Ten years from now, the Boston Globe will be locally owned. It may be a very different paper from what it is today. It may be smaller, more locally focused, and published entirely or mostly online. But it will be bought, probably by Boston business people who understand the importance of the press and its watchdog role.

Which is exactly what happened in Philadelphia yesterday, where local investors paid a reported $562 million for the city’s two daily papers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, and their related holdings.

Given the New York Times Co.’s ownership of the Globe, it was interesting to see Times reporter Katharine Seelye’s take on the deal. Seelye devotes most of her space to handwringing over the possibility that the business interests that now control the Inquirer and the News will interfere with coverage and compromise journalistic independence. The new owners have pledged not to do that, but it’s a real concern.

But given a choice between a rapacious out-of-town chain owner that systematically strips the newsroom in order to drive up profits and local ownership that might occasionally find it irresistable to meddle, I’d take my chances on the latter. Unfortunately, the former is exactly what happened in Philadelphia, where the once-great Inquirer was marginalized by Knight Ridder. Earlier this year, the Inquirer and the Daily News were acquired by the McClatchy chain, which immediately announced its intention to find yet another new buyer.

The Times Co. has been a better steward of the Globe than Knight Ridder was of the Inquirer. But the Times Co. is, nevertheless, a profit-driven, publicly traded company (albeit one whose governing structure leaves it in control of the relatively idealistic Sulzberger family). The Globe’s well-publicized financial problems have turned the paper into a drag on profits. Will the Sulzbergers seek to own the Globe forever? I’d say no — and I’m not alone.

Update: After posting this item, Media Nation reader R.K. called my attention to this excellent commentary on local ownership by former Boston Globe columnist David Warsh, now the proprietor of a Web site called Economic Principals.

Steyn Central responds

Mark Steyn’s assistant, Chantal Benoît, has sent a response to my earlier item. I reproduce it here in full:

Dear Mr Kennedy,

I did not threaten Professor Pullum with legal action. He sent us an e-mail which was somewhat threatening and then another one 15 minutes later declaring “Your fifteen minutes is now up.” And then after I sent a polite reply he accused us of “brazen” “stonewalling”.

I am French-Canadian so I do not always understand the famous English sense of humour but it was apparent the conversation was becoming argumentative with no end of sight and that is a waste of time for all parties. So I concluded as follows:

“It is up to you whether you wish to escalate this any further. We have invited you to pursue it with Maclean’s and have offered Mark’s resignation if they agree with you. But, given the intemperate nature of your e-mails, I think it would be better if you spoke to your lawyer and we will refer him to ours.”

As you know, Maclean’s did not agree with Professor Pullum. Mark credited the Professor for the only thing he “stole” from him — the technical term for the missing definite article, which I discovered via a Welsh link to Professor Pullum’s site.

Everything else Professor Pullum and his co-writer accuse him of “stealing” are points others have made. Two of the three posts Professor Pullum claims were “plagiarized” were never seen by anyone in this office until the Professor brought them to our attention. In the most ridiculous of Professor Pullum’s accusations, he accuses Mark of “stealing” an observation on the meaning of Leonardo da Vinci’s name that Mark first made on the BBC in 1994. His co-author is now claiming Mark steals jokes from Professor Pullum. We’re happy for any scientists to arrange controlled studies with readers and random sampling of side-by-side pieces to test this proposition.

Mark did not, as you put it, “get pissed”, “get wild” or “call a lawyer”. Having worked in Fleet Street, he only gets pissed in the British sense. Instead, he offered to resign from Maclean’s if they thought the Professor’s charges had merit. They did not. But, as you know, Mark writes for a wide variety of publications from The Atlantic Monthly to Hawke’s Bay Today in New Zealand. You are a widely respected media commentator. If you wish to take up the Professor and his co-author’s accusations with the publisher and editor-in-chief of any of those newspapers and magazines and they agree with the Professor, then Mark will resign from each of those publications, too. For an e-mail or two, you can have the satisfaction of ridding the world of a notorious right-wing hack.

With best wishes to you, and thank you for your profile, about which we still receive many amusing letters.

As ever,

Chantal Benoît
Assistant to Mark Steyn

If either Geoffrey Pullum or Mark Liberman wishes to respond, Media Nation will be happy to add that as well.

Update: Jeff wonders whether I believe Chantal Benoît really exists — or, for that matter, Tiffany Cole, another Steyn assistant, with whom I exchanged e-mails in 2004. Answer: No, probably not, although it hadn’t previously occurred to me that Steyn was lame enough to engage in such a ruse. But if he actually does employ a Chantal Benoît, I hope it’s this one.

Update II: OK, that was too flip. I’ve done some poking around with Switchboard and Intelius and can report that there’s a Tiffany Cole in the same New Hampshire town where Steyn lives, as well as several people named C. Benoit who are nearby. Funny, though. Two years ago a couple of bloggers who call themselves the Brothers Judd defended Steyn, and poked fun at me, for supposedly being naive enough to believe in the existence of Cole and Benoît. So, for what it’s worth, this cuts both ways.

Mark Steyn and the “P”-word

Fact-challenged conservative columnist (make that the fact-challenged conservative columnist) Mark Steyn has been accused of plagiarism or something like it for a takedown he wrote of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

The case against Steyn is made by Language Log‘s Mark Liberman, who says the style and content were lifted from two posts about Brown’s crimes against the English language that had been written by his co-blogger, Geoffrey Pullum, in 2004 and 2005. Liberman offers links and analysis — everything you need to come to your own conclusion.

A lot of it has to do with Pullum’s — and Steyn’s — bemusement at Brown’s leaving out the “the” in describing what people do, as in, “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” This construction is so common in journalism that it may not be immediately recognizable as wrong (or at least weird), but, in fact, the sentence ought to be preceded with a “the.”

I wish the case against Steyn were clearer. The problem is that Steyn actually cites Pullum even as he apparently rips him off. This isn’t classic plagiarism; rather, it strikes me as inadequate attribution. Steyn’s not-quite-there crediting of Pullum is either clumsy or disingenuous. Take your pick.

Liberman makes some good points about the different shades of plagiarism and its ilk here; he also reports that Steyn’s assistant has threatened him with legal action. Nice! More on those threats here. It seems that Steyn’s claiming he’d never heard of Language Log until he’d been attacked.

File this under: “How Mark Steyn Got Pissed, Got Wild and Got a Lawyer.”