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 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.

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.

Globe acknowledges lifting material from WBUR

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.

WBUR reports on the editor’s note here.

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.