Boston Herald media reporter Jessica Heslam writes that Jon Keller’s book, “The Bluest State,” is “riddled with almost three dozen instances of direct quotes and other material lifted from numerous newspaper articles without any attribution.” Her story, teased on the front page, is leading Romenesko right now. So any hope Keller might have had that this would go away is pretty much gone. We’ll be talking about this for a few days, at least.
My purpose here is not to pick a fight with Heslam. She found what she found, and she has a reputation for getting her facts straight. And I suppose Media Nation readers have a right to treat what I say about Keller, the political analyst for WBZ-TV (Channel 4), with suspicion. As I have made clear in the past — most recently last Saturday, when the Boston Globe reported that Keller’s son, Barney, was the spokesman for Republican congressional candidate Jim Ogonowski, and that Keller had disclosed that fact only occasionally — Keller is a friend of mine. I also gave “The Bluest State” a favorable review (with appropriate disclosure) in the Guardian recently. So I write this item in that spirit.
So what do I think? My opinion is based on having known Keller for the past 16-plus years as well as from having read “The Bluest State” fairly carefully. It comes down to three things:
- I believe Keller is incapable of deliberately violating the ethics of journalism. He is an honest reporter and a craftsman who takes great pride in his work. Which leads to my next two points.
- A fair reading of “The Bluest State” makes it absolutely clear that Keller has written an amalgam combining some original reporting with a lot of material that, at this point, is essentially in the public domain. I find it hard to believe that anyone would think Keller had personally interviewed everyone he quotes.
- Keller’s methodology is hardly unusual. Op-ed-page columnists regularly quote kings, prime ministers and presidential candidates without specifying that they didn’t actually interview those people. And you can be sure that if you leafed through just about any political book aimed at a general (as opposed to an academic) audience, you will find numerous examples of quotations not attributed to the news outlet that conducted the original interview.
I respectfully disagree with Samuel Freedman, who teaches at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and writes for the New York Times. Freedman tells Heslam that Keller made it appear he personally conducted every interview. I suspect Freedman hasn’t actually read the book, because if he had, he would come to the opposite conclusion.
In fact, Heslam herself offers evidence that all but proves my point, writing:
In one example from Keller’s book, he took five direct quotes from neighbors, a parent, a school board member and city councilor from four Globe articles written in 1988, 1989 and 1990 on the controversy surrounding the Commonwealth Day School on Brattle Street in Cambridge.
The ’80s? Would anyone honestly believe Keller was passing off nearly two-decade-old quotes as having come from his own reporting? Of course not.
Keller could have avoided this with footnotes, but that’s atypical in the trade press. But, again, the lack of footnotes is not evidence that Keller was trying to pass off other news outlets’ interviews as his own. Rather, in a book aimed at a general audience such as “The Bluest State,” the assumption is that readers will take it on faith that Keller got it right — not that he interviewed everyone who’s quoted.
Update: Adam Reilly agrees, and makes a telling observation about the different ways that Keller handled his own material and his second-hand research.