Berkshire Eagle publishes, defends a racist column

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See this follow-up post.

The venerable Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, founded in the 1890s and winner of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, recently published a racist column by a “conservative activist” named Steven Nikitas. After outraged readers complained, editor Kevin Moran responded in a column of his own that though he vehemently disagreed with Nikitas’ screed, he considered it well worth publishing. Moran wrote:

Views and opinions — whether they be considered by some, most or all people to be ignorant or brilliant or somewhere in between — tell us a lot about the community in which we live, work, go to school, vote, debate, worship, pay taxes, make choices and decisions, etc.

That’s true. And a community paper like the Eagle should provide a public forum — to act as “a town square,” as Moran puts it. But it should also have standards for what it chooses to publish, and that’s where I think the Eagle blew it. Presumably Moran would not publish a column calling on white residents to burn crosses in order to drive their African-American neighbors out of the area. And no, Nikitas’ column isn’t as bad as that. But if you read it, you will see that it’s bad enough. Here is how Nikitas begins:

After the burning and looting in Baltimore and Ferguson we are seeing endless media hand-wringing that somehow “we” must all do something more to help black America. And “we” means white people, taxpayers, businesses, the criminal justice system, the universities and the government. But blacks must now pull themselves up. “We” have done far too much already with tens of trillions in handouts in the last 50 years, and it has backfired badly.

Conservatives and Republicans have offered sure-fire solutions for black America and they have been rejected repeatedly. Our advice has been for African-Americans to discard the leadership of the Democrat party and charlatans like Al Sharpton. After all, far-left liberalism has obviously failed. The proof is everywhere.

Conservatives have recommended over and over that blacks reform their culture from top to bottom by respecting marriage and the family and the law, returning to their churches, embracing education and hard work, avoiding violence and debased rap music, speaking clearly, shunning drugs and profanity, and pulling up their pants. And to stop blaming all of their problems on everyone else. That is immature, cowardly and counterproductive.

What respectable business owner would hire a young black male from the “hood” who won’t even show up for work? What successful enterprise is going to establish itself in crime-ridden inner cities? Isn’t looting and burning self-defeating?

And so it goes, for 750 words in total.

A few observations.

First, if your instinct is to argue that Nikitas has a First Amendment right to his opinion, my answer is yes, he certainly does. He should get a blog. The Eagle is not the government. It is a newspaper, and it has a First Amendment right to choose what to publish and what to reject. The Eagle has risked its brand and reputation for the sake of providing a platform for a racist screed.

The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit community news site that is the subject of my book “The Wired City,” offers a useful counterview: it screens comments before they are posted, and won’t publish those it considers racist. The policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.” And these are comments, mind you, not full-blown columns.

Second, since we began talking about this on Twitter and Facebook Sunday (here’s the public Facebook link, where you’ll find a lively discussion), I’ve seen several people argue that the Eagle was providing a service by calling attention to a racist in the its midst. I find that argument ridiculous. You call attention to racism with reporting, not by providing a platform to a racist. Besides, racists are not particularly exotic; you can find them everywhere.

Third, this is a challenge for the Massachusetts Republican Party because, as Moran explains, Nikitas’ column is part of a regular series called “Right from the Berkshires” produced by members of the Berkshire County Republican Association. Will that group disavow Nikitas’ views? If not, will the state party disavow the regional group? I’ve already heard from one Republican activist who believes the state party should order the Berkshire group to stop using the party’s name.

I have a feeling that there’s going to be more to come. It’s already starting to circulate nationally — after I found out about it, I discovered that Talking Points Memo was already on it. It will be interesting to see where this goes from here.

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.

Josh Marshall 101

Noam Cohen profiles Josh Marshall in the New York Times following Marshall’s winning a Polk Award for his coverage of the U.S. attorneys scandal. Cohen kindly quotes me at some length.

As I noted last week in a blog post for my students, Marshall’s Talking Points Memo and related sites have pioneered a new kind of investigative reporting that combines the journalistic expertise of Marshall and his crew with the decentralized knowledge of their readers.

As citizen-journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor has memorably put it, “my readers know more than I do.” Marshall has figured out how to tap into that knowledge and make sense of it.