By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The Herald and Jon Keller

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.

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  1. Anonymous

    Dan, you’re right. We should treat anything you write about Keller with suspicion. If he’s your friend, then he must be a wonderful guy, and I’ll take your word for it. But as a journalist, he’s a complete hack. It’s interesting you emphasize the issue of intent. Again, I’ll take you at your word that Keller wouldn’t intentionally do something unethical. But cluelessness does not require intent.

  2. Anonymous

    EB3 here,Freedman’s quotes seemed over the top and appeared more like a knee-jerk reaction from political persuasion hurling rocks at an injured messenger of the other persuasion.Keller said his pub said foot notes were not needed. Blame the publisher. Keller did not, in my opinion, trry to hide anything.

  3. Anonymous

    You gave a favorable review to a book by a friend of yours? And you’re weighing in on journalistic ethics?

  4. Anonymous

    It’s not that your support of Keller is automatically compromised by your friendship. It’s just that every Keller has a Kennedy. So unless you apply the same standards, diligence, and leniency in every similar case — a methodology that is woefully lacking in Boston journalism — it does smack of favoritism.

  5. Rory O'Connor

    I agree with you that this is pretty much a tempest in a tea pot. With ‘news’ now having turned into a highly available ‘commodity’ accessible to almost everyone, I don’t see the harm in using quotes from other articles that are, as you state, pretty much in the ‘public domain’ — especially since the author appears (I haven’t read the book) to have credited the sources elsewhere for much of the information used, and certainly didn’t make the quotes up (Jayson Blair, are you listening?) or claim that they had been said to him directly.

  6. Anonymous

    Gee, I don’t know Dan. Sounds to me like you might be subconsciously looking at this in the best possibile light on behalf of your buddy. You didn’t mention this example from Heslam’s story, which seems to me to be the most egregious: “Another quote Keller uses is almost identical to one from a June 17, 2003 Globe article on wind energy. That story quotes Robert Kennedy Jr. during a phone interview with the paper: “I think the first obligation of all environmentalists is to protect their own backyards,” Kennedy said by phone, as he drove by a wind farm in California. “I don’t live on the Cape, but I love that water body. I grew up on it, I love it, and I don’t want to see it destroyed, I don’t want to see it devalued.”Including “Kennedy said by phone as he drove by a wind farm” really makes it sound as if Keller was the one Kennedy was speaking to. How hard is to write “Kennedy told the Boston Globe as he drove by a wind farm?”

  7. Anonymous

    Furthermore, I don’t see why the passage you quote all but proves your point, at all. I’m not aware of any statute of limitations on attribution. Be that as it may – 2 paragraphs later, Heslam writes:The newspaper articles Keller used date as far back as 1988 to as recent as 2006, covering such issues as the 2006 deadly Big Dig collapse, a city hall “holiday tree” flap and gay marriage. In some instances, multiple quotes are lifted from a single article.Is 2006 recent enough for you?

  8. Anonymous

    So you teach your students that politicians’ quotes in a newspaper are in the public domain and need not be attributed? If so, your students should get their money back.Keller has been at a large number of press conferences for decades, and it would be reasonable for a reader to assume he was there doing the reporting at the time the quote was made.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 10:50: In my favorable review of Keller’s book, I disclosed my friendship. Which you would know if you had bothered to follow the links.As for footnotes, I can tell you that I had to fight with my publisher to get chapter notes included with my book on dwarfism, “Little People.” First they said no, then they said I could put them on the Web. I held out and won, but it wasn’t easy.Anon 11:08: Do you read the op-ed pages? What would you do? Fire everyone?

  10. Anonymous

    dan, your argument is well-reasoned as far as it goes. it’s a solid brief in defense of your friend. it has a whiff of merit. but you are trying to give keller a pass here that in reality does not exist. there is no free pass for taking material from third-party outlets and incorporating it into your work as your own without attribution. even a sentence in the book’s forward stating: “I have taken the liberty of amalgamating into my narrative quotes and material snatched from extensive research via google, factiva, and these folders i keep with highlighted passages in a drawer in my desk” does not cut it. anyone who goes down this booki-writing road knows full well that attribution is a full-time and inescapable aspect of the trade. there is no “exemption” for trade books, for wikipedia entries, for cd-roms from the smithsonian, or whatever other medium you choose. it’s a baseline requirement. maybe keller got bad advice from a green editor or unwise publisher — many he didn’t think it through properly — maybe he thought he was writing one long op-ed and so “other” rules apply (which they don’t, by the way). none of that matters. what matters is that there is a foundational expectation that work of this kind — that citations of these kinds — be noted, attributed, corroborated and properly ID’d and cited for the record in the book. it’s a simple standard. we all learn in it grade school. notes/citations are an ongoing part of the writing life. there are no exemptions for friends or for folks who “mean well.”by the way, a simple remedy is to reissue the book with all proper citations. it’s hard work but it’s the only remedy. tough luck, should have been done in the first place.

  11. Rick in Duxbury

    Interestingly, estimates quoted are that only 2,000 copies of the book have been sold. I wonder if THAT provoked any questions by The Herald? (One copy was to me, loved it.I’m really glad no trees had to die for “200 pages of endnotes”. Talk about apples and oranges!) I think the bigger story is how the Herald appears to have undergone an editorial sea-change. Guess if you want Globe-like access you have to engage in Globe-like sycophancy.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Rick: Unless a book really catches fire, you’d be surprised at how few copies ever get sold. “The Bluest State” has been a local bestseller. That is not at all inconsistent with “only” 2,000 copies being sold.

  13. Anonymous

    [Anon. 10:33 and 11:06 here -]I Just read Reilly’s comment, which concludes with this:”True, the system could be clearer. But it’s a real reach to accuse Keller of bad faith here.”Again with the intent argument! As I noted previously, cluelessness does not require intent.Reilly’s right – Keller’s “system” certainly could have been much clearer. I think Anon. 10:57 [not me] nails it with his observation about the Robert Kennedy quote. That’s just terrible, sloppy, and unprofessional, and you can’t rationalize it.

  14. Anonymous

    “we all learn in it grade school.”Along with the “shift” key….

  15. Anonymous

    This reminds me of the same complaints about Michael Moore. Er, never mind….

  16. Anonymous

    Jeez, Dan, I guess reporters for both dailies can bear the pass you give Keller in mind the next time they feel like lifting some reporting from the competition and not attributing it. After all, it’s public domain, isn’t it?

  17. Anonymous

    when can we expect heslam’s review of howie’s book about the bulgers?

  18. Peter Porcupine

    Just curious – has such an autopsy been performed on the book by Bob Shrum? Bill/Hillary Clinton? Barack Obama?I read – and worse, BUY – a lot of political writing. I’m thinking of my own books – Bill Safire slavishly annotated everything, Elliot Richardson and Robert Reich not at all. If anything, Keller’s book would have BENEFITTED from some atribution in the text, as his snappy style is better suited to TV than the page, which perforce goes slower.That said – if he were predictably liberal, these stories wouldn’t have been written, IMHO.

  19. Anonymous

    Oh, and why am I not surprised you and Reilly agree on this?You forgot to disclose that you and Reilly go back aways at the Phoenix, that you used to write the “Don’t Quote Me” column, and that you are still a contributing writer to the Phoenix. But all readers everywhere are just supposed to know that, right?And on the subject of disclosure – disclosing that you and Keller are friends does not eliminate your obvious conflict of interest. You probably should not have reviewed his book, for instance.

  20. Anonymous

    Reilly doesn’t agree. Unlike you, he says, “Obviously, the book should have had footnotes.”

  21. mike_b1

    The works by Mark Bowden, for one, are extensively footnoted. That other writers don’t take the time to do so doesn’t make it OK.

  22. Mr Lynne

    I believe any book that claims a thesis and uses examples from other works needs citations not just as a rule, but to be taken seriously in any way.I wonder what a journalism professor would say had I handed in something with the preamble that I had ‘taken liberties’.

  23. Another face at Zanzibar

    Dan, This is a minefield, eh? It’s easy to lob grenades at Kaavya Viswanathan, isn’t it? But when it’s people you know and care about on the firing line it feels a bit different. Come on, how can you defend your buddy here? Keller should’ve known better. It’s that simple. He ends up coming off as a low-rent Mike Barnicle (admittedly a tough task). Sure, he’s human and makes mistakes. We all do. It’s not the end of the world, as Manny might say. But plagiarism is plagiarism. There’s no grey area. And there’s no room for figuring out intent. It either is or it isn’t. In this case, it is. Mark

  24. Anonymous

    Dan, you’re setting up a false choice between a level of citation and extensive footnoting more typically found in scholarly writing, and no attribution at all.Anon. 10:57 points to the obvious middle ground – simply inserting phrases like “so-and-so told the Boston Globe in 2003,” would have prevented giving readers the impression that Keller had conducted interviews and reported on stories that he actually had not.Maybe not as thorough as many of us might wish, but at least there would be no confusion. And I find it difficult to believe Ted Bax-, uh, I mean, Jon Keller, didn’t understand that.

  25. Tony

    Wow, 25 comments in just five hours. What a hot topic!

  26. Anonymous

    Pardon my pejorative comments about Adam Reilly but from what I’ve seen of his milquetoast observations about local media, having him agree with you is not necessarily a sign of anything except that he’s still breathing.

  27. Greg Reibman

    You write “Keller is incapable of deliberately violating the ethics of journalism.” But until books start carrying a “Dan Kennedy seal of approval” which rates which journalists you’ve deemed ethical enough to ignore the rules, it might be best if we all just follow the rules.

  28. Paula Span

    Some nonfiction authors use footnotes, some don’t. But attributing the quotes Keller lifted would have been a simple enough process even if he chose not to footnote. As many have noted here, a few simple phrases like:”as so-and-so told the Globe”or”so-and-so said at a press conference”or “Globe and Herald reporters learned at the time”would have sufficed. That approach would have clarified Keller’s work for his readers (who might otherwise have thought he did indeed do his own legwork) and honored his obligation to his fellow reporters (who are well within their rights to feel ripped off by someone who should know better.)I’m with my colleague Sam Freedman. I’m at work on a nonfiction book, and while I’m not footnoting every fact and quote, I’ll certainly include chapter notes pointing out which people I interviewed and which articles and books I used. This is pretty basic stuff.Paula SpanColumbia J-School prof

  29. Anonymous

    I’m really glad no trees had to die for “200 pages of endnotes”. Talk about apples and oranges!Pardon me, but if Keller is unwilling to provide citations to source for assertions of fact, why should anyone believe anything that he writes?–raj

  30. Anonymous

    It’s just Keller being Keller(I have no idea what I meant by that). Go Red Sox!

  31. Anonymous

    Isn’t this the same thing that got Ron Borges suspended from the Globe? An amalgamation of quotes and quips without proper attribution.Here is what Dan said about Borges at the time,”One aspect of Borges’ meltdown continues to trouble me. You cannot judge whether or not he committed plagiarism without taking a close look at the disclosure that ran with his football notes column, as well as with the notes columns of several other Globe sportswriters: “[M]aterial from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.”How do you hang someone out to dry for lifting material when there was a huge, blinking sign telling readers that the material they were about to read was at least partially — yes, lifted from other sources? Of course Borges should have rewritten the stuff he was taking, but it’s not as though he’d claimed that it was the fruit of his own labors. To this day, I doubt that he thinks he did anything wrong. (Just to be clear: He did.)”So Borges did wrong, despite the disclaimer in his column. Keller did nothing wrong, even though there was no disclaimer. According to Dan,”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.”Dan’s basic position seems to be that it’s our fault, we should have known that Keller was above board and footnotes aren’t necessary.

  32. Dan Kennedy

    Paula: Thank you for checking in. I think there are a few issues here that we’re losing sight of. For instance –1. You wouldn’t have done it the way Keller did. Neither would I — and I didn’t. But the issue is whether Keller followed generally accepted practices for a general-interest trade book. I think he did. How many similar books could we pull off the shelf that would have exactly the same lack of citation?2. You say you’re with Sam Freedman on this. A good place to be. I admire his book “Letters to a Young Journalist,” which I reviewed for Columbia Magazine. But Freedman, in his quotes to the Herald, seems to believe that Keller deliberately passed off the work of others as his own. I’d like to know if Freedman has read the entire book, and if he thinks seeing how Keller handled various types of attribution might lead to his changing his mind. As Adam Reilly notes, Keller makes it pretty clear when he’s relying on his own interviews and when he’s using the work of others.3. Several commenters — not you — seem to think I’m being flip and dismissive of all this. Not at all. This is serious stuff, and I live and breathe it every day. It’s perfectly legitimate to think that my friendship with Keller has clouded my judgment. But it also gives me insight into his character that others may lack. We had a conversation several weeks ago about the extent to which he relied on secondary sources. There was no secret about this. He clearly did not intend to pass off anyone else’s work as his own, nor do I think he did, either deliberately or accidentally. It’s fair to observe that he could have handled the attribution better than he did. But that’s as far as this goes.

  33. Anonymous

    Hey, Dan, interesting dance you’re doing there. Is it The Twist or The Funky Chicken?

  34. Anonymous

    Jon Keller is on the money! You whiner wannabes are either jealous of his success…or Liberal Democrats! Pretty obvious to me.Keller’s got class, dignity, and integrity.

  35. Anonymous

    I’m from an academic background, and so I like footnotes. I prefer a book have endnotes, or at least a bibliography. I’ve given certain books rather bad reviews because they didn’t have any notes in cases where the lack of notes made me skeptical that the things in the book happened.But having worked for book publishers and with book publishers, I know the reality of the situation, which that non-fiction books written by non-academics that have good footnotes footnotes are the exception, not the rule. Publishers do not like printing footnotes; they consider those extra pages a waste of money. Editors do not like dealing with footnotes; it makes their jobs more difficult, since they might have to actually check them. And journalists who have never used them in newspapers or magazines often treat even the idea of footnotes with disdain.It’s true that in newspapers, journalists usually attribute quotes that were gotten by another publication to that publication. But I almost never see this in books. I’ve seen books that have almost nothing but quotes from primary sources that don’t mention anything about where they came from. The fact that “everybody does it” does not, of course, make something right. But let’s not pretend that what was done here is anything other than the norm. Personally, I’d prefer that every non-fiction author do footnotes in the style of a Robert Caro, and I always take a non-fiction book without footnotes less seriously. I wish that most journalists did not think that footnotes are unnecessary. I wish that most publishers care about footnotes. I ‘d like to see pressure put on publishers to include footnotes. I’d say that a boycott by major media outlets of books that need footnotes but don’t have them would be a good thing. But the sad reality is these days I sometimes have to fight for books to have indexes, because publishers are starting to consider even those extra pages to be wasted money. Not to mention the even sadder reality that so many are okay with the use of fiction in non-fiction if the fictional material comes from a “place of truth.”

  36. Mr Lynne

    Dan, I think I agree with you about the existence of similar books that have exactly the same lack of citation. Personally I can’t remember the last non-fiction book I read that had that problem. I don’t think anyone here is saying he broke a law, its a criticism that either is or isn’t legitimate. I don’t think the fact that other examples can be brought up delegitimatizes the criticism in principal. The fact that publishers have seen fit to accept the practice doesn’t mean that the criticism is any less relevant, unless the only standard we want to hold up as acceptable is ‘what other people do’. That is a child’s plea to ones parents when forbidden from something desired (‘But mooooommmm… all the other kids get to do it’).

  37. Anonymous

    One big complaint about not having the footnotes…If you’re quoting from some other publication, how do you know the other publication got it right?You’ve gone on and on and on and on and on about the whole Middleborough vote. “Middleborough voted for casinos”. It’s been reported in most every paper that way. It must be right, right? So I should be able to quote it in my book|article|whatever.You can’t have it both ways.

  38. Anonymous

    The footnotes in Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein” serve as a teaching tool to his fascinating book; David McCullough’s index, bibliography and source notes in “John Adams” kill a few trees and silence any critics; likewise for David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln.” If you study these masters, you’ll stop arguing and see the logic and beauty in living by a code of honesty.FOOTNOTE: I’ve worked with John and admire his knowledge. I blame his editor for not demanding accountability.

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