The Next Plagiarizing Columnist Who Comes Along?

The next plagiarizing columnist who comes along? We’ll take it outside!

By Dave Lieber
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

After hosting the NSNC’s 2005 annual conference, I took a short break. A four-day conference that felt like a month took two months to get over.

Then it was back to school – literally.

After 10 years on this organization’s board of directors, I sought new challenges. By the end of the summer, I was volunteering as the faculty advisor at my youngest son’s school.

Westlake Academy is unique. Only three years old, it represents the future of public education. It’s a public charter school, the only charter school in Texas operated by a city. It will have an international baccalaureate program and my son, only 8, takes mandatory violin lessons. (Grapevine conference attendees remember him playing in the NSNC Hospitality Suite.)

The school has never had a newspaper. Forty seventh and eighth graders, representing half of all those enrolled in both grades, signed up to be part of my new adventure. These kids had no newspaper experience, but in a matter of weeks, we were putting out a 20-page newspaper financed by student-sold advertising. We have news stories, editorials, photographs, features, sports, and, of course, columns.

We meet every Friday after school. Most of our work the rest of the week is done via e-mail. I am the publisher and editor-in-chief, but not for long. I’m busy training these 12, 13 and 14 year olds to take over. Next year, the school will add a ninth grade, and tenth the following year, and so on.

I’m so proud of these kids and their newspaper. But there is one area of journalism instruction that I had neglected — and my neglect began to show itself after a few issues.

We’re talking about ethics.

Sadly, it’s part of human nature now, I guess, that journalists, journalists of any age, will cut corners to get the job done.

I caught my kids doing the following:

One photographer claimed credit for photos that her father took.

A student conducted an e-mail interview with a teacher and then copied and pasted the teacher’s comments into her story as if they were her own words.

Another student copied verbatim from a Web page without proper attribution.

Another claimed that she took a photograph, but when I noticed that she was actually in the photograph, she admitted that her mother actually took the picture.

I caught each of these mistakes before publication. In each case, the student got a brief lecture. A mild warning. I explained that since I had never gone over the rules, it wouldn’t be fair to hold them accountable.

In February, however, I finally set the rules.

* * *

They were shocked to hear that they couldn’t accept gifts from people they write about.

They were upset to learn they couldn’t use their press badges to get free tickets to concerts and other events.

They didn’t like the idea that they had to attribute their information to the sources they came from. And they weren’t wild to hear that if their brother or sister played on a sports team that they covered, they had to disclose the relationship to readers.

To make it all very clear, I wrote a Code of Ethics and gave a copy to everyone.

The code was based on the NSNC’s Code of Conduct that I co-authored several years ago.

Together, the kids and I went over every word of the code. The kids were told that from now on, any violation could result in a suspension from the paper, and if the offense is repeated, possible termination.

Nobody was smiling when they heard this.

* * *

Maybe that’s what we need to do: start teaching journalism ethics to students in the seventh and eighth grades. Maybe that would have helped the latest culprit of columnist stupidity: Bill Johnson of the Rocky Mountain News.

He stands at the end of a long line of columnists chumps that began this recent trend. The line starts with cheater Mike Barnicle and passes on through to last year’s fabricators, Diana Griego Erwin and make-up artist Mitch Albom, and continues with payola writer Armstrong Williams. I’m leaving out a dozen others. But you remember the stories.

Still, before I tell you what Johnson did, I want to make a quick disclosure.

Before I was hired for my columnist job at the Star-Telegram in 1993, I was a finalist for the metro column gig at The Register in Santa Ana, California. The other finalist –and the guy who got the job — was Johnson. He deserved it.

During the Los Angeles riots the year before (after police were acquitted in the Rodney King beating), Johnson had left his job as a business reporter and written three columns about what it was like to see his home town burn. Only three columns, but they were good enough to get him named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year. It’s a safe bet that in the history of the Pulitzers, no columnist was ever named a finalist based on the first three columns he wrote in his career.

Obviously, Johnson deserved to get the columnist gig at his paper. I became a fan of the guy who beat me out for the job. I followed his career at the Register and then at the Rocky Mountain News. His writing voice is often wonderful and powerful.

But according to a story in Westword, Denver’s alternative newspaper, Johnson recently cheated in a column. It came when he wrote about the AFC championship game between the Steelers and the Broncos in Pittsburgh.

Johnson wrote, “On my way to the hotel, there is a man standing on a busy street corner, wearing a halter-top dress. He holds a sign in his hands that says: ‘I BET AGAINST THE STEELERS.’ I will tell you this, something I would never tell one of the locals. Pittsburgh is one butt-ugly town.”

Notice how Johnson wrote, “On my way to the hotel, there is a man. ”

The problem, according to Westword, is that Johnson never saw the man. He saw him later on television and pretended in his column that he witnessed this.

A subsequent correction in the Rocky Mountain News stated: “Columnist Bill Johnson should have said he saw on television a scene that the column described him seeing in person on the way to his hotel in Pittsburgh.”

Johnson gambled, Westword wrote, “that no one would bust him.”

How did the bust occur? Pittsburgh bloggers, offended by the rest of Johnson’s nasty column about their hometown, began to pick his details apart. This was the most blatant, but they claimed to find other minor errors, too.

How

It’s not only plagiarism, but laziness that nails us.

Milwaukee Magazine reported in January that Milwaukee Journal Sentinel star reporter Crocker Stephenson writes “empathetic profiles of quirky characters and underdogs fighting adversity. But some of these people have criminal records readers need to know about, and Stephenson doesn’t bother to do background checks. That oversight has come back to bite him again.”

How?

Silly the Clown, profiled by Stephenson, turned out to have a restraining order against him for spraying mace in a 9-year-old boy’s face. Silly is also considered a suspect in a murder.

A wheelchair-bound man portrayed lovingly by Stephenson turned out to have a record for harassing women.

Another profile subject, Shorty Barnes, a double amputee, was convicted for impersonating a police officer, possession of drug paraphernalia, throwing a glass bottle at his daughter, threatening a man with a 13-inch knife, threatening police and resisting arrest. Stephenson reported none of this.

Making it up, not knowing the full story or copying the facts from somewhere else –” all of that gives our critics ammunition to undermine us.

* * *

“I guarantee you that in every newsroom in America, there’s some plagiarism.”

The speaker was Jerry Ceppos, former vice president of news at Knight Ridder, the company I work for, in an interview I read on a Web site, Grade the News.

“Like one reporter, or five?” Ceppos was asked.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “And part of the problem is that everyone’s definition of plagiarism is different. But whatever the lowest standard is, I think it’s probably go ing on out there.”

“What’s being done about it?” he was asked.

“We did a few things. Knight Ridder has about as close to a zero-tolerance rule as you can get. We decided — and this happened at the highest levels, Tony Ridder — that when someone is fired because of plagiarism, when a reference check comes in we will not say, “That’s a personnel matter. I can’t tell you what happened.” We’ll say the guy was fired for plagiarism.” So at least we’re not being codependents or enablers.

* * *

One of my favorite columnists at my paper was fired a couple of months ago as part of this zero tolerance. Ken Parish Perkins, the TV columnist, lost his job after an editor at our competitor across town, The Dallas Morning News, alerted the Star-Telegram that Perkins lifted material from Entertainment Weekly.

After Perkins was fired, his defenders said he got a raw deal. But at our paper, we immediately held mandatory staff meetings to go over the rules of attribution and when and how to use material from other sources. A lot of what I heard at that meeting was new: The rules are now much tougher than they were just a few years ago.

No longer can we use old quotes, even from our own newspaper, without attribution: “according to stories in the Star-Telegram archives.”

Also at the meeting, the top editor at our paper informed us that a close check of Perkins’ work found that he had used material from other sources as if it were his own in recent years on at least 40 occasions.

Within weeks of his removal, Perkins was writing for the Chicago Defender newspaper. And on a recent Southwest Airlines flight, I read a story by him in that airline’s flight magazine.

Codependents? Enablers?

* * *

A few final points:

It is easier to do original research than it is to steal.

You don’t have to worry about looking over your shoulder.

Readers are smart enough that, sooner or later, they will catch you.

Your critics are severe enough that they will jump all over you.

If you do it and you get caught, your malevolence not only will destroy you — but the credibility of your newspaper and all the rest of us who try to do things right.

That’s why the Bill Johnsons, Ken Parish Perkinses and Armstrong Williamses of the world don’t seem to pay a big enough price.

* * *

OK, enough of me as a sourpuss. Here’s a tip of the hat to 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary winner Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Her husband, Sherrod Brown is running for the U.S. Senate.

Schultz has announced that she will take a leave of absence during the campaign.

It saves her and her newspaper much aggravation.

And it protects her credibility.

No one can accuse her of bias. Not if she isn’t writing.

Smart move.

* * *

With all this extra space available because this issue of The Columnist is Web-based, let me conclude this “really bad column” by sharing our NSNC Code of Conduct. It certainly doesn’t hurt me to retype it and for you to read it again:

“As a newspaper columnist, I will strive to inform, educate and entertain my readers. I will work hard to provoke them to think — whether they agree or disagree with my efforts to depict truth as I see it.

“I will offer my opinions and the reasons I hold them as clearly and as fairly as I can. I will never take advantage of my position to achieve unwarranted personal gain not available to others or use my column to settle personal scores. I will disclose potential conflicts to readers whenever possible.

“I will never make up a quote, a source or a story when depicting true events. But I will reserve the right to engage in parody and satire.

“I will work hard to earn and keep the trust my readers and editors place in me. I will never plagiarize. Whenever possible, when I make a mistake, I will correct it.

“I will listen to my critics and, in person, treat them with dignity and respect because they pay me the high honor of reading me, even if they disagree. Similarly, I will treat with personal courtesy those whom I may criticize in writing before and after writing about them.

“I will always remember that my job is a privilege and honor because being a columnist represents the basic American rights of free speech and open discussion.”

Dave Lieber writes his Really Bad Column every issue for The Columnist. His new CD audio book, based on his book of stories, The Dog of My Nightmares, has just been released. It’s available for next to nothing at www.yankeecowboy.com. He swears he didn’t plagiarize, make things up or forgo background checks on any of the stories on the CD.

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