From the New York Times, political #fail in three acts

Three examples from Sunday’s New York Times of political coverage that makes you want to bang your head against an immoveable object until you’ve forgotten what you’ve just read:

• Maureen Dowd’s column, a characteristically superficial attack on Mitt Romney that veers into the ditch when, about halfway through, she sneers at Romney’s “shiny white family.” Seriously? What color is the Dowd family, Mo?

• Jeff Zeleny’s news analysis, in which he opines — oh, sorry, writes analytically — that both the Romney and the Obama campaigns are relying mainly on negative advertising.

Of course, there are few things more satisfying to the media mindset than asserting that both sides are just as bad. But as Zeleny writes as an aside to which he attaches no seeming significance (and as Greg Mitchell flags), the Romney campaign’s ads are five-to-one negative, whereas Obama’s are a relatively cheery two-to-one negative.

Even worse, Zeleny makes no attempt to assess whose negative ads are more truthful. The mere existence of negative ads on both sides is not the least bit newsworthy if one side’s consist of unfair attacks and the other’s are more or less on the level. All in all, a worthless exercise, yet the Times played it at the top of the front page. (Younger readers may be interested to learn that some news sites print a portion of their content on dead trees.)

• Public editor Arthur Brisbane, nearing the end of his somnolent stint as the Times’ in-house critic, laments that political coverage is too focused on the negative campaigns being waged (naturally) by both sides and not focused enough on the issues.

Now, this is a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around, because I’m as critical as anyone of horse-race coverage and the political press’ obsession with polls and tactics. But the alternative Brisbane proposes — “substance” and “issues” — strikes me as absurd given the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

This election will not be decided on issues. There is nothing important to learn by studying the fine points of Romney’s or President Obama’s tax proposals or financial-regulation plans.

Rather, this election is about broad themes, tribalism and cultural signifiers. There is more significance in polls results showing that one in six Americans believes Obama is a Muslim than there is in 50 stories telling us where he and Romney stand on cap-and-trade. Political coverage that avoids that central truth is destined to fail.

Where is our Hunter Thompson?

Photo (cc) by unwiederbringlichbegangenes and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Slideshow for Dowd plagiarism discussion

Later this afternoon I’ll be leading a discussion of the Maureen Dowd plagiarism story in Steve Burgard’s graduate ethics class at Northeastern. Here’s the slideshow I’ll be using.

Times spokeswoman disagrees on Dowd

Curious that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd would be out of the paper on Sunday and Wednesday of this week after having her knuckles rapped by public editor Clark Hoyt, I sent an e-mail to Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis asking whether Dowd was on vacation or had been suspended. Mathis’ reply, in full:

Maureen is on vacation. Since she didn’t do anything wrong, there would be no reason for a suspension.

That, of course, would be contrary to Hoyt’s view, who delivered a mild rebuke to Dowd last Sunday after she lifted a paragraph from Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo without attribution. In addressing Dowd’s claim that she had taken the e-mailed passage from a friend without realizing it had originally come from Marshall, Hoyt wrote:

I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.

Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, said journalists collaborate and take feeds from each other all the time. That is true with news articles, but readers have a right to expect that even if an opinion columnist like Dowd tosses around ideas with a friend, her column will be her own words. If the words are not hers, she must give credit.

No, Hoyt’s views are not those of Times management. Even so, I’m surprised Mathis would say something so definitive in defense of Dowd just days after Hoyt offered a different view. But there you go.

Last thoughts (probably) on Maureen Dowd

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt today largely absolves columnist Maureen Dowd, writing, “I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.”

Over the past week, I’ve thought a lot about plagiarism in the context of teaching journalism students. So it’s relevant to point out that, at Northeastern, we define plagiarism as “intentionally representing the words, ideas, or data of another as one’s own … without providing proper citation.” Based on what we now know, I sort of agree and sort of disagree that Dowd did not plagiarize. And I definitely agree that what she did wasn’t right.

When the news broke that Dowd had copied more than 40 words from Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo without quotation marks and without attribution, my first thought was that bloggers would pore over everything Dowd had written to see if they could find other examples. Well, it’s been a week, and the Marshall incident still stands alone. I don’t think it’s plausible that Dowd would suddenly start plagiarizing at the age of 57. So not only is this a first-time offense, but it speaks, I think, to a lack of malice aforethought on her part.

Earlier in the week, I and other commentators wrote that we had a hard time believing Dowd could be telling the truth when she said she had somehow managed to insert Marshall’s words, almost verbatim, based on a casual conversation she’d had with a friend. She has now clarified that, telling Hoyt she’d exchanged e-mails with a friend — still unnamed — and then copied and pasted his or her thoughts from the e-mail into her column.

That is a pretty lame way to write a column, and as Hoyt says, readers have a right to expect that a columnist, as opposed to a news reporter, will use her own words except when quoting others. Dowd’s editor, Andrew Rosenthal, disagrees.

Now, this may surprise readers who’ve never worked in a newsroom, but Rosenthal’s take is pretty much in sync with the way journalists work. As an editor, I have written whole paragraphs into opinion pieces by people with well-known bylines. As a writer, I’ve had editors do the same with me. But it’s one thing to acknowledge that journalism is a collaborative process; it’s another to have friends help you write your column, and then turn it in to your editors without telling them.

If intentional theft is at the heart of plagiarism, then Dowd didn’t plagiarize Marshall. But she did plagiarize her friend, even if she did it with that friend’s acquiescence. And though she may never have lifted someone’s published words before last week, it could well be that she frequently cobbles together e-mails from friends in the course of writing — assembling? — her column.

At Media Matters, Eric Boehlert calls on the Times to produce the e-mail. At Scripting News, Dave Winer offers a similar view. My own take at this point is that Dowd not only owes us a fuller explanation, but she also owes her readers an apology. A brief suspension wouldn’t be out of order, either. It’s not a matter of wrecking her career; it’s a matter of basic accountability.

By far the most logical explanation would be that Dowd copied and pasted the Marshall passage herself with the intention of crediting him, and then forgot to do so. We could all understand that. Because she has given us something so much less straightforward, and because we still don’t know everything, I wonder if something else is going on.

At the Nytpicker, Amy Alkon asks something I’ve been wondering myself. Is it possible that an assistant did most of the work, including grabbing the Marshall quote without attribution, and that Dowd is now covering for both the assistant and herself? Normally I don’t like engaging in such speculation. But given the lack of transparency on the part of Dowd and her editors, I see no reason why we can’t offer some educated guesses.

Unfortunately, Dowd had the day off today. She should be writing her next column for Wednesday’s paper. I’ll extend to her the same invitation she received from Slate’s Jack Shafer last week: She should use her column to tell us what happened, how it happened and what she’s learned from the experience.

The standards to which she is held ought to be at least as high as those expected of any college sophomore.

Photo of Maureen Dowd (cc) by Matthew and Peter Slutsky and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Maureen Dowd odds and ends

As the Maureen Dowd plagiarism story continues to wind down, a few stray pieces:

  • Despite Jack Shafer’s splendid suggestion that Dowd offer a full accounting of what happened in today’s column, she instead weighs in with an insipid imaginary conversation between Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Gah.
  • Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, whose words were appropriated without credit by Dowd in her Sunday column, says he “never thought it was intentional,” and “that’s pretty much the end of it.”
  • The New York Post has picked up my Guardian column on the matter. Sure, I’m getting a kick out of it. But I’m also less than thrilled to be drafted by Rupert Murdoch into his ongoing pissing match with the Sulzbergers.

Dowd was just talking with a friend

I don’t think New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd committed a hanging offense. But I continue to be troubled by her explanation of how she came to lift a paragraph from Josh Marshall’s megablog, Talking Points Memo.

OK, so Dowd was “talking” in a “spontaneous” manner with a friend, as she put it to the Huffington Post. Fine. I had decided to assume for the purpose of moving on that by “talking” she meant “e-mailing.” It would be completely believable if she had copied and pasted from a friend’s e-mail who had volunteered to help her write her column. Lame, but believable.

And yet here is what she told a blog called the Nytpicker, via e-mail:

no, we were going back and forth discussing the topic of the column and he made this point and i thought it was a good one and wanted to weave it in;
i just didn’t realize it was josh marshall’s point, and we’ve now given him credit
my friend didn’t want to be quoted; but of course i would have been happy to give credit to another writer, as i often do

I don’t see how you can possibly construe this as an e-mail exchange, especially when, as you will see, the Nytpicker had contacted her a second time trying to clarify exactly how Dowd had managed to reproduce Marshall’s rather lengthy graf almost word for word. Hey, she was just talking with a friend. Right.

(Via an e-mail to Media Nation citing National Review’s Media Blog, which in turn got it from DailyKos.)

Dowd’s modified limited hangout

Jack Shafer points out in Slate that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd deserves credit for not going into hiding, not whining and not claiming that what she did wasn’t plagiarism. I’ll give her that.

In an e-mail to Media Nation, Shafer also fingered an attribution I’d messed up in my Guardian column, which has now been corrected. I’d misattributed a Dowd e-mail to the wrong source. Thank you, Jack.

Maureen Dowd’s real sin

It’s not plagiarism, assuming Sunday’s column was an isolated incident. Rather, it’s phoning in a lazy, solipsistic column that is sometimes entertaining but rarely digs deeper than the conventional wisdom of the day.

Or so I argue in the Guardian.

The blogosphere versus Maureen Dowd

Simon Owens has the latest on the Maureen Dowd plagiarism story, with quotes from Dowd and a no-comment from Josh Marshall.

The New York Times has already updated Dowd’s column to credit Marshall, but there’s no acknowledgment that there was a problem in the first place.

OK, this is premature, but here is Dowd friend Howell Raines’ 1998 takedown of the Boston Globe, which he chastises for failing to fire star columnist Mike Barnicle after he’d been caught plagiarizing one-liners from a book by George Carlin.

I would imagine Times editors are going to have to do something even if Dowd’s explanation pans out. I’d also guess that the next 24 hours will be key. Right now, we can assume that dozens (hundreds?) of bloggers are scouring every column she’s ever written.

If she can survive that, then she’ll get through this. If not, then all bets are off.

Maureen Dowd accused of plagiarism

And it looks like a mighty compelling case. Watch for her to say that she mixed up her notes. (Via Jay Rosen.)

Update: Dowd responds. And I was wrong. She’s claiming a friend fed her the line.