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

Poynter weighs in on the Globe’s lifted editorial

Craig Silverman of Poynter Online weighs in with a smart take on the Boston Globe’s decision not to release the name of the staff member who wrote an unsigned editorial that was lifted almost word for word from

The original piece, which criticized Vice President Joe Biden’s “put y’all back in chains” comment, was written by Republican political consultant and WBUR contributor Todd Domke. The Globe editorial was the subject of a recent “editor’s note” (which you’ll find at the bottom) in which the paper expressed its “regrets.”

As I wrote on Aug. 24, the editor’s note raised as many questions as it answered, since it did not reveal the identity of the person who wrote it or whether he or she had been disciplined.

Last week, as you may have heard, Boston Herald columnist and WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Howie Carr sent a dispatch to subscribers to his email list claiming he had learned the culprit was Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, and that she had been suspended for two weeks. The email ended up being posted to the Free Republic, a right-wing website.

Oddly, though, that information has not appeared in the Herald, which instead ran a story on the Globe’s decision not to name names. The Herald also criticized Emerson College journalism professor Mark Leccese for not addressing the issue in the unpaid blog that he writes for the Globe’s site.

Also writing about this have been Jim Romenesko and iMediaEthics.

Silverman’s piece is the fullest treatment so far. He quotes editorial-page editor Peter Canellos as saying:

Our policy is not to discuss internal disciplinary actions. But our editor’s note should speak for itself. There were similarities in structure and phrasing that shouldn’t have been used without attribution. We take these matters very seriously.

Silverman also expresses frustration at the Globe’s response, writing that “the paper won’t name the writer, won’t detail any related discipline, won’t say if they’re reviewing previous work, and won’t call it plagiarism.”

It strikes me that this would have been a one-day story if the Globe had simply announced who did it, whether that person had been disciplined and, if so, what the punishment was. The borrowing from Domke’s piece looks to me more like extreme sloppiness than classic plagiarism.

And yes, I understand that such matters are confidential at most companies. But if this had been a signed column rather than an anonymous editorial, naming the person would have been unavoidable. I don’t see why it should be handled differently simply because the piece did not carry a byline.

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  1. Kris Olson

    Why it should maybe be handled differently (just thinking out loud): Editorials, by their nature, are institutional opinions, rather than individual ones. We don’t know — nor will we likely ever know — exactly how the sausage was made here. But generally speaking, wouldn’t multiple people have been involved in determining what the paper’s position on the matter was going to be? And wouldn’t the editorial page editor have had an idea, at least in general terms, as to what the writer was going to say? I would also imagine that there are times when an editorial writer is even charged with giving voice to an opinion with which he or she personally disagrees (though whether that was the case here is immaterial, since it’s the “unfair use” of another’s material that is the issue, not the position taken). So I could see the Globe maybe saying that to release the name of the writer would unfairly focus the brunt of the criticism on her (or him), ultimately conveying/perpetuating a mistaken notion of what an editorial is, or how it comes to be. It was an institutional opinion piece, therefore it was an institutional mistake, ergo the institution should take the heat. “Win as a team, lose as a team.”

  2. Jerry Ackerman

    I side with Kris. Carrying out the “name the culprit” campaign to its logical extreme would call for all editorials to be signed. My understanding of the process is that editorial positions at the Globe are, for the most part, reached by consensus among editorial writers, after which one writer either volunteers or, lacking a raised hand, is given the assignment. There are exceptions to such a process, of course. But I have doubts that was the case here.

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