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 WBUR.org.
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 Boston.com site.
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.
Clicking led to a blog post by Globe political reporter Matt Viser, who had covered an event by Mitt Romney in Washington at the Newseum, a museum about journalism and the importance of the First Amendment. Toward the end, as Baron noted, came this rather startling paragraph:
Romney stayed to take questions. But following his 28-minute address — held at the Newseum, which is situated between the US Capitol and the White House — reporters were escorted out of the room and weren’t allowed to listen to the questions.
In the Newseum? The irony couldn’t have been any thicker. (And not just Romney. See update below.) As Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone put it a short time later:
Media blogger Jim Romenesko wrote that he contacted Newseum spokesman Jonathan Thompson and “suggested … that the Newseum put a clause in its room-rental contracts requiring journalists be respected in the House of Journalism — for example, not be marched out of a room when it’s time for politicians to face questions.” Please click to read Thompson’s response, but the short version is that Rosen’s prediction was on the mark. You’ll also see my suggestion for how Thompson should have responded.
So those are the facts. What are we to make of this?
First, I’m inclined to give the Romney campaign half a pass here. It is hardly unusual for presidential candidates to hold events from which the media are excluded. You may recall that one of the worst moments of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was when he complained to supporters at a no-media event about Pennsylvanians who “cling to guns or religion.” In that case, a supporter named Mayhill Fowler, who also blogged for the Huffington Post, decided to write it up.
But Romney only gets half a pass because he and his handlers should have known that excluding reporters from an event in the “House of Journalism,” as Romenesko called it, would create unwanted controversy in a way that excluding them from a fundraiser in a hotel banquet hall wouldn’t.
Second, and more important, the Newseum’s response was reprehensible. I’m reasonably sure officials there didn’t know Romney was going to lower the cone of silence. Maybe it’s never happened before. But the proper response would have been to express chagrin and promise that steps would be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Reporters should never be kicked out of an event at the Newseum, whether it’s private or public. But as of this writing there’s been nothing from the Newseum other than Thompson’s statement and this tweet from Thursday:
No doubt the Newseum needs the rent money. According to its tax filings for 2010, the most recent that’s publicly available at GuideStar, the museum took in $73.4 million and spent $78.8 million, for a deficit of $5.4 million.
On Thursday, though, Newseum officials stepped in it in a way that could end up costing them a lot more in future donations than they’ve ever made in private rentals. My guess is the proverbial high-level conversations are taking place right now.
Update: Politico media reporter Dylan Byers takes a swipe at Calderone, his predecessor in the job, saying that Obama “did the exact same thing” at the Newseum back in March. Yes, it should have been news then. And it only underscores that it’s long past time for the Newseum to prohibit private groups that rent its facilities from banning reporters from their events.
Photo (cc) by David Monack and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Jim Romenesko has written an understated but emphatic post on his new site about what really happened between him and Poynter Online editor Julie Moos. It’s painful to read, but it’s ameliorated by the fact that he emerged with his good name intact.
I think it’s safe to say that Poynter is going to have to respond. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Moos bungled a legitimate issue over Romenesko’s sometimes-hazy use of quotation marks, conflating his method of aggregating into an absurd accusation that he was unethical.
A few quick updates on the exceedingly unpleasant divorce between media blogger Jim Romensko and the Poynter Institute:
• It now appears that Poynter Online editor Julie Moos didn’t merely overreact to an inquiry from the Columbia Journalism Review’s Erika Fry. Instead, she completely misunderstood her. Fry writes that the main thrust of her questions to Moos concerned Poynter’s move toward running longer excerpts on its Romenesko+ blog (now renamed MediaWire). Says Fry:
I raised the questions because I was coming to believe that recent changes in Poynter’s practices, taken together, are not good for journalists, and run counter to the intended spirit of Romenesko’s blog, which was originally designed to give credit and traffic to journalists, not to steal those things from them. I thought these were issues worth discussing, ones that could be easily — and, needless to say, without anyone’s resignation — fixed.
• At Boston.com, old friend Mark Leccese takes a more by-the-books approach than I do to Romenesko’s indifferent use of quotation marks. Mark provokes another thought. Until the last few years, the Romenesko blog did not include bylines for each individual item. Indeed, in this archived example from 2010, you could argue that the attribution was to the originating news organization. Then Poynter redesigned the site, and suddenly every item Romenesko posted included his name and mugshot.
Did that somehow make it seem worse when Moos brought the hammer down last week? I’d argue yes. Romenesko never claimed that anything he posted was original, but including his byline on items may have changed the expectations, at least in Moos’ mind.
• The one issue I keep going back to is Moos’ claim that no one at Poynter knew what Romenesko was up to until she received Fry’s inquiry — several weeks before Romenesko was to retire, and on the verge of his launching his own advertiser-supported blog. That claim is simply not credible, and I continue to hope that we’ll learn more.
There are a lot of good people at Poynter, and the institute is a valuable resource for journalists. I wish them well. But I don’t think Poynter is going to be able to move on until we learn all the details about why they whacked their most valuable employee at a moment when he already had one foot out the door.
Something very strange and unjust happened yesterday in the little world of media criticism: Jim Romenesko, who’s been blogging about media news since the late 1990s, and who was just several weeks away from retirement, was accused by his employer, the Poynter Institute, of plagiarism-like offenses. Romenesko resigned.
If you read between the lines, it seems that this was not a typical case of resigning rather than being fired. Rather, I think he resigned rather than continue to work for people who claim they didn’t understand his methodology until this week — a claim that, frankly, I find pretty dubious.
What’s important to keep in mind about Romenesko is that his media-news site functioned as an aggregator, not as a source of original content. I’ve been reading him almost from the start, when he began writing a blog (we didn’t call them blogs back then) called MediaGossip.com while holding down a job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I never really considered what he did to be “writing.” Rather, he found interesting stuff, copied, aggregated and linked out. It was one-stop shopping for people who wanted to know what was going on in journalism.
Jeremy Peters of the New York Times, who labels yesterday’s events “bizarre,” observes that Romenesko was called to task for “his failure to use quotation marks when summarizing articles” even though he “never claimed credit for [those summaries] as his original work.” That’s exactly right. I always considered Romenesko to be among the most ethical and transparent of journalists, and I still do.
The details, from Poynter’s perspective, are laid out in this post (link now fixed) by Julie Moos, the director of Poynter Online. I found her post to be thoughtful and serious; she doesn’t deserve the abuse she’s taking over this. Nevertheless, I believe she and other Poynter executives made a serious error of judgment in writing about Romenesko’s methodology as though it raised some sort of ethical issue. It didn’t. It appears that Poynter acted rashly after hearing from Erika Fry, an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, who had discovered that Romenesko was indifferent about using quotation marks when excerpting material he was linking to.
Why NPR wanted to overturn the law banning animal cruelty images NPR.org NPR believes that the law, as it stood, could have been misused to criminalize speech about the use and abuse of animals. In NPR’s view, says a lawyer for the network, “the statute could allow the federal government and courts presiding over cases brought under the law, to substitute their own news judgment in place of the judgment of an NPR editor.”
The headline is linked to a column by Alicia Shepard, then-ombudsman for NPR. When you click through to her column, you find that the first sentence of Romenesko’s summary is actually something Shepard wrote. Is that deceptive? We know we are reading a summary of an NPR item, and we are invited to click to read the whole thing. It certainly doesn’t look to me like Romenesko was trying to deceive anyone.
I think Moos’ claim that Poynter didn’t know how Romenesko went about his business until this week is problematic. Those of us who have read his blog over the years have always known. Especially in the early years, he updated maniacally. You could email him a tip, and, if it was hot enough for him, he’d have it up within minutes. Copy and link. Copy and link. That’s what he did. And he was (and is) exceptionally skilled at finding the heart of your story, which of course led to more clicks for your site.
Let me give the folks at Poynter this much. Early on in their relationship with Romenesko, they could have sat down with him and told him to be more careful about using quotation marks — that material being quoted directly had to be labeled as such, even if he was not deceiving anyone. Just from the point of view of craft, I think the blog would have been better if he’d done that. But to hang him out to dry now, and to claim they didn’t know, is cold.
Erik Wemple has a must-read post on Romenesko at WashingtonPost.com. He reinforces my sense that Romenesko’s offense, such as it was, was not completely inconsequential. But I wish he had dealt with the absurdity of Poynter now claiming it never knew what its most valuable employee was up to.
Romenesko’s resignation prompted a firestorm of criticism, nearly all of it directed at Poynter, on Twitter (some from me) and on the Poynter website. A lot of it was from media critics. So let me acknowledge that we all have a conflict of interest. Especially during my years as the Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, but even today, I have shamelessly plugged my work in emails to him, asking for links and recognition. I benefitted hugely from Romenesko’s attention. It was because of his blog that a local media critic like me was able to develop a small national following. So yes, I suppose I am defending him as vociferously as I am out of a sense of loyalty and gratitude. But I’ll repeat: Though I think he could have been more careful about quoting, he did nothing unethical, and was completely transparent and open about what he was doing. All you had to do was click and check his work.
What will be the fallout for Poynter? It’s hard to say. Romenesko was leaving in a few weeks anyway to start a new, independent blog, JimRomenekso.com. But I’m pretty sure he was expecting to contribute to Poynter from time to time. And he has said his new blog would be devoted to longer, reported items. But what if he’s now angry enough to use his new blog to compete directly with Poynter? That could be interesting.
Some years ago, I recall reading a story about how brilliant Poynter had been to sign up Romenesko and make him the centerpiece of its online efforts. It was mainly because of him that Poynter Online became the first stop for people interested in journalism, leapfrogging such venerable outlets as the CJR and the American Journalism Association.
If you poke around Compete.com, which tracks Web traffic, you’ll find that Poynter.org has an exponentially larger audience than other journalism sites, including some really good ones such as the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Journalism.org. I don’t consider Compete’s numbers to be all that reliable, but I think they’re a good guide for getting a rough idea of who’s more popular than whom.
Which is to say that the Romenesko matter could be devastating to Poynter depending on how it plays out.
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.
There’s so much going on this morning that I can barely keep up. And I really need to return to (shhh!) the Book. So here’s a quick roundup, to be followed by a more important matter, and then (I tell myself sternly) that’s it for today.
Don’t miss Michael Levenson’s splendid Boston Globe article on the millions of dollars being spent on Beacon Hill by developers looking to build casinos in Massachusetts. Levinson wins extra bonus points for referring to “gambling interests” rather than the PR-ish “gaming interests” so beloved by those trying to improve the image of their miserable industry. As Dick Hirsch says of “gaming”: “They are trying to wrap a noxious substance in an elegant package in order to conceal its toxicity, deodorize it and tell us what a benefit it will be.”
Very sad news about Steve Jobs’ decision to step down as Apple’s chief executive. Forgive me if I’ve said this before: he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard, always keeping his focus on what users want – and even on what they don’t know they want. He is a visionary and quite possibly a genius. The must-read is this essay by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. Don’t skip the video. Though it is universally believed that Jobs is gravely ill, I hope he can contribute to Apple in a reduced capacity for a long time to come.
Best wishes to Jim Romenesko, the indefatigable media blogger who announced his semi-retirement yesterday. Starting in the 1990s, Romenekso – first at his own site, later for the Poynter Institute – has been linking to (and offering short, intelligent commentary on) every bit of media news and gossip he can find. Especially in the early days of the Internet, he gave alt-weekly types like me a small national readership. Here’s a piece I wrote about him for the Boston Phoenix in 1999, when he announced the move to Poynter. And here’s a Phoenix article written by Mark Jurkowitz in 2005 on the dread “Romenesko effect.” Good luck to Jim, the best friend obscure media columnists like me ever had.