Palestinian refugees in Syria wait for food assistance.
Yesterday morning I was talking with my students about the importance of independence in journalistic ethics. Today The New York Times reports that a photo of Palestinian refugees in Syria has come under scrutiny, with some suspecting the picture is a digitally altered fake.
Perhaps questions would have been raised in any case, but it doesn’t help that the photo was distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). According to the Times, the photo appears to be genuine, and depicts the brutal reality of everyday life in Syria. But when the news comes from organizations with an agenda, it’s only natural that observers will ask questions.
The UNRWA photo is important and well worth calling to the world’s attention. But with more and more news coming from non-journalistic organizations, the value that journalism can bring is to scrutinize and determine what’s real and what isn’t.
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 WBUR.org. The use of the material without attribution was inconsistent with Globe policies, and the Globe regrets the error.
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.
Time was when a young journalist could recover from a lapse in judgment, learn from his or her mistake and get back on the career ladder. As NPR’s Nina Totenberg once said about having been fired for plagiarism when she was a 28-year-old reporter for the National Observer, “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.”
Those days are long gone. Whereas well-connected miscreants such as Mike Barnicle seem never to go away, young reporters caught stealing are briefly held up to national ridicule and then banished into some black hole. My friend Mark Jurkowitz calls it the “Romenesko Effect,” in tribute to Jim Romenesko’s compulsively read media-news site at Poynter.org.
The latest example is a reporter for Connecticut’s Middletown Press named Walt Gogolya, who left the paper after he was caught ripping off large sections of a story from the local Patch.com site. (I wouldn’t name Gogolya except that Romenesko writer Charles Apple — Romenesko himself is heading toward retirement — already has.)
The article falls into the news-of-the-weird category, as it involves the arrest of a man for field-dressing a deer in a parking lot. Those details may have made it harder for Gogolya to get away with his thievery. Worse for him is that the Press is owned by the Journal Register Co., which, under CEO John Paton and Connecticut regional editor Matt DeRienzo, has embarked on a public campaign of maximum transparency. Gogolya was not quietly asked to leave — he was thoroughly exposed in this editor’s note from DeRienzo. From there it was but a short hop to Romenesko and industry-wide humiliation.
I’m not entirely sure what to think about this. I think DeRienzo deserves credit for being open with his readers about what happened and how the company responded. I also did some poking around the tubes and discovered that Gogolya is not some kid fresh out of J-school. Nor do I have a problem with Romenesko airing such matters — quite the opposite, in fact. Yet these good decisions, defensible in themselves, may add up to something that’s disproportionate to the offense. Not that this is an excuse, but I’d be curious to know what Gogolya’s workload was like. Those are not easy jobs. But guess what? There’s no going back.
Essentially, young journalists need to know this: the world in which Nina Totenberg began her career no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. When it comes to journalism’s two cardinal sins, plagiarism and fabrication, it’s now one strike and you’re out.
I think it also means that those of us who teach journalism need to be as diligent about these matters as we possibly can. Far better to suffer an “F” and a trip to the student disciplinary board at 20 than to have your career ended just as you’re getting started.
Last Friday morning, the New Haven Independent posted its final revision of a story reporting that the city’s police union had approved a “no confidence” vote in Chief Frank Limon by a margin of 246-21.
But I digress. The story closes with a quote from and a photo of a custodian who works at police headquarters. The custodian, Michele Kearney, says:
There’s been a lot of tension ever since he’s [Limon] been here. There is not a lot of morale here. The last chief [James Lewis] was more understanding of what needs to be done. From what I have seen he wanted to hear their opinions and try to work with them. This one here [Limon] seems like he is working against them and not with them.
The story drew 108 comments — a very high number for the Independent. On Thursday at 3:23 p.m. (in response to an earlier version of the story) a commenter who goes by “da hill” criticized the Independent for quoting “unrelated entities” such as Kearney. Editor and publisher Paul Bass responded:
Thanks for the input. Our feeling was that someone who’s in the building cleaning the floors every day, talking to officers, and watching what’s going on, does in fact have a valid perspective to offer on morale and the overall feeling in the building.
At 5:21 p.m., “NO CONFIDENCE” wrote: “I am so happy to see a civilian like Michele, pictured above, tell the citizens of New Haven how Chief Limon treats his officers. She works in the police department and is definitely well qualified to make those statements.”
A short time later, “Our Town” posted this: “I sure hope ole Michele is in a union, becuase I have a feeling she might not have a job tomorrow for speaking up.”
Then, at 11:06 p.m., there was this, from “Ken”:
The maintenance girl was fired immediately and we heard it came from, you guessed it, the chief. This is his MO if don’t agree with or lie for him you’re in trouble. City Hall has demanded she be re-hired by O,R&L. I guess the The Chief never heard of the First Amendment. OR&L should be questioned about it and if they lie they should lose the city contracts. If it came from the Chief he should be terminated.
O,R&L is a private contractor hired by the city to maintain its buildings.
On Friday at 3:49 a.m., “unbelievable” wrote: “She was FIRED and escorted out of the building like a CRIMINAL! and you talk about wanting to do your best for this city!? … Well New Haven Independent, what are you going to do now??”
What the Independent did was post a story by Bass reporting on Kearney’s situation. The events of the day were convoluted. Kearney was fired; no, she’d been placed on leave. Mayor John DeStefano’s outgoing spokeswoman said the mayor had asked O,R&L to reinstate her. DeStefano said he’d done no such thing. The mayor’s incoming spokesman then said the company had informed the city that Kearney had been reinstated.
And, most controversially, the Independent posted the cell-phone number of the O,R&L supervisor assigned to police headquarters, urging readers to make their feelings known. “Members of the public can call him there if they want to express their opinions on the matter directly,” Bass wrote.
The latest WikiLeaks document dump gives us all much to think about. Unlike the earlier materials, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latest revelations might actually make it more difficult for the United States to conduct foreign policy.
Is the world safer or less safe today now that we know King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has urged the U.S. to take out Iran’s nuclear-weapons-in-the-making? Or doesn’t it matter? And would the documents be seen in a different light if the New York Times, the Guardian et al. had done nothing and let WikiLeaks release them on its own accord?
Like most journalists, I want to see as much information out there as possible. When government officials talk about the need for secrecy, I’m naturally suspicious. Yet as Timothy Garton Ash observes in the Guardian, secrecy is surely a tool that the State Department needs to use on occasion. He writes:
How can diplomacy be conducted under these conditions? A State Department spokesman is surely right to say that the revelations are “going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world.” The conduct of government is already hampered by fear of leaks. An academic friend of mine who worked in the State Department under Condoleezza Rice told me that he had once suggested writing a memo posing fundamental questions about U.S. policy in Iraq. “Don’t even think of it,” he was warned — because it would be sure to appear in the next day’s New York Times.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., sounds as though he wants WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to be tried and executed. I think we can safely dismiss rants like that while still wondering whether there was a legitimate need to keep these matters secret.
I have not yet come up with an answer to that question. What I do know is that information technology now makes it possible for a group like WikiLeaks to dump far more dangerous documents than these into the public realm. Say what you will about traditional news organizations like the Times, but at least they give the government an opportunity to make a case as to why such documents shouldn’t be released.
One thing’s for sure: if the government is serious about keeping its secrets, it needs to do a much better job of protecting them.
Management digs in deeper while still not explaining why off-duty reporters can’t attend and observe without participating. Will the next memo outline how much distance you have to keep from the crowd if you’re heading out for a carton of milk? And will the distance be measured in yards or meters?
What does it mean to “participate” in a rally? It’s a question I’m asking myself after reading a memo from NPR management (via Romenesko) warning journalists to stay away from the Oct. 30 rallies being organized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The memo, from senior vice president for news Ellen Weiss, includes this:
NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming John [sic] Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.
Most of Weiss’ admonitions are a matter of common sense. Journalists should not put bumper stickers on their cars, donate money to political candidates or do anything else that would amount to political involvement. But if I were an off-duty NPR reporter, I’d be offended at being ordered not to attend a rally, whether it be Colbert’s “Keep Fear Alive” event or Glenn Beck’s recent gathering.
Good journalists want to check things out whether they’re working or not. There’s a proper role for a reporter on a busman’s holiday, and it neither requires staying home nor involves waving fists and posters while chanting along with the crowd.
John Carroll takes the Boston Herald to task for two stories about underage sexual-assault victims — one of whom is a 14-year-old girl described as allegedly having an “affair” with a 30-year-old school security officer (it’s called rape, people), the other depicted (but not named) in a photo in the print edition.
“Something’s out of whack at the feisty local tabloid,” writes Carroll.