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

Globe acknowledges lifting material from WBUR

The Boston Globe today admitted to “the use of material without attribution” in a recent editorial criticizing Vice President Joe Biden. The Aug. 17 editorial, which took Biden to task for his “put y’all back in chains” comment, tracks closely — very closely — with a commentary by Republican political consultant Todd Domke that was published two days earlier on the website of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM).

An editor’s note published by the Globe reads as follows:

An Aug. 17 editorial on Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on bank regulations contained some similarities in phrasing and structure to an opinion piece by Todd Domke on The use of the material without attribution was inconsistent with Globe policies, and the Globe regrets the error.

WBUR reports on the editor’s note here.

Domke’s commentary is longer and better written than the Globe editorial. The problem is that the editorial tracks with Domke virtually paragraph by paragraph, with similar and at times identical language, while offering nothing that Domke didn’t come up with first. Even if it’s not actual plagiarism, Globe editors obviously believed it was close enough to warrant a mea culpa.

Which raises a few questions:

If this were a signed column rather than an unsigned editorial, wouldn’t this be a bigger deal? Wouldn’t we be wondering whether the writer had been or should be disciplined? Does the anonymity of editorial-writing mean less scrutiny than this would otherwise warrant?

And, more important, what are we to make of a partisan political argument written by a Republican contributor to WBUR becoming the official position of the region’s paper of record? The Globe editorial accepted the view that Biden’s comment was somehow racial in nature, even though Biden’s reference to “chains” was arguably a response to House Speaker John Boehner’s promise to “unshackle Wall Street.”*

As former conservative Charles Johnson wrote: “The right wing media are still shrieking about Joe Biden’s ‘chains’ comment, even though not a single one of these demagogues honestly believes there was a racial intent to it.”

Not to beat a dead horse. The Globe acknowledged its misstep. But really.

*Note: What Biden actually said was, “Romney wants to let the — he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put ya’ll back in chains.” It was Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs who later cited Boehner’s remarks.

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  1. Welcome to your new digs, Dan. Nice place you got here.

  2. I still think the bigger question is why is WBUR pursuing false “balance” by having an explicitly-partisan commentator?

    I mean, isn’t that a major reason why WBUR has, for years, refused to air “Democracy Now!” with Amy Goodman? Because it’s too partisan? (not that I’d exactly be in favor of them adding DN! to their airwaves, but it still feels like pot calling the kettle black)

    • dankennedy

      @Aaron: I wouldn’t call “Democracy Now” partisan. It’s deeply ideological — far left. But it’s not aligned with a political party.

  3. Good point. But to counter: is there really a difference between “partisan” and “ideological” these days?

    And it doesn’t address my initial question: why is WBUR trying to have “balance” in its political reporting with Todd Domke (“Republican Political Analyst”) and Dan Payne (“Democratic Political Analyst”)? Isn’t that going directly against the revisions to the NPR Ethics Handbook that came out earlier this year, that specifically are trying to champion the concept that a report characterized by false balance is a false report?

    • dankennedy

      @Aaron: I sure hope there’s a difference between partisan and ideological. I’m a liberal opinion journalist, but I’m not a Democrat. I don’t give money, put campaign signs on our lawn or even reveal who I’m voting for, though I’m sure no one would be surprised at my choices. To me it’s the difference between maintaining some independence versus becoming a party tool.

  4. Aaron Read

    Fair enough for yourself. What about Payne and Domke? They’re specifically identified on WBUR’s site as “Republican” and “Democratic” analysts…not “conservative” and “liberal”.

    I don’t mean to beat up on WBUR too much here, but I’m really puzzled. I know my perspective is one of many, but from where I’m standing, the decision to have two explicitly-partisan commentators on a public radio station is almost inexcusable. Am I missing something here?

  5. Aaron Read

    Gotcha, thanks.

    Yeah, this probably would take a lot of digging that I myself don’t have time for, but besides the whole issue of it being a practice of questionable efficacy, there is the issue that the NPR Ethics Handbook seems to essentially say that WBUR’s policy is one they should be trying to avoid.

    I guess I’m trying to determine if my perception that someone should be wagging a finger at WBUR and saying “shame shame shame” is justified or not, and the answer is that maybe it is, and maybe it’s not…but one shouldn’t make such accusations without a lot more facts and analysis than is readily available.

    • dankennedy

      @Aaron: We can also reopen the whole can of worms about the notion of “NPR stations.” Yes, WBUR is an NPR station. And a PRI station, and an APM station, and …

      • Aaron Read

        True, but in this case I don’t think that exactly matters. As an NPR affiliate, WBUR – like any NPR affiliate – is supposed to conduct its operations according to the NPR Ethics Handbook, too. It’s been a while since I’ve had to think about this, but I don’t think there’s all that much in the NPR contract about how affiliate stations are required to adhere to a SPECIFIC set of standards, but I’m pretty sure if a station strayed too far from the NPR ideal that they’d hear about it.

        The whole thing about a “public radio” station is an “NPR station” or something else, really only matters when the station is NOT actually an NPR affiliate but nevertheless airs public radio programming from other sources (PRI, APM, Pacifica, etc). There aren’t too many of those out there…WMOT in Murfeesboro was one of the few but they rejoined the fold a couple years ago.

        And really the whole distinction of “NPR” vs “PRI” or independent matters most when talking about nationally-distributed programming, as opposed to the stations airing the programming. It’s problematic when one paints with a broad brush in that situation, since NPR cannot be responsible for shows it doesn’t control, even if NPR affiliate stations are airing it.

        FWIW, I concede that I have no idea how an affiliate station is supposed to conduct itself when, say, the equivalent handbook for PRI comes in conflict with NPR’s. I don’t know if such a concept is realistically possible, though; neither PRI nor APM have particularly strong Ethics Handbooks that I’m aware of. Most everyone just defaults to the NPR Handbook because they’re the big dog in that arena.

        To add a further wrinkle: WBUR is a producer of NPR-branded content that is distributed nationally (On Point, Only a Game) so I imagine it’s doubly true that they must toe the NPR line…but at the same time, they also (for the moment) distribute Here & Now through PRI.

  6. Glen Bergendahl

    The “Globe” guilty of plagiarism? Shocking I say.

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