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Boston Globe, local pundits treat plagiarism case too lightly

Posted by Mark Leccese  September 10, 2012 08:33 AM

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I had not intended to write about the Globe’s plagiarized August 17 editorial, even though the Boston Herald whacked me upside the head for not doing so, because I had just written two blog posts about the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism case. If you wanted to know where I stand on plagiarism in journalism you could read those.

Two things changed my mind: a segment on the regular Friday night “Beat The Press” episode of the WGBH-TV show “Greater Boston” in which the host and two guests downplayed the seriousness of the offense, and the end of the two-week suspension of the Globe staffer whom “Beat The Press” had identified as the author of the plagiarized editorial.

Emily Rooney, the host the WGBH-TV show, reported that the Globe had suspended the editorial writer for two weeks for what an Editor’s Note appended to the August 17 editorial on Boston.com called “the use of material without attribution.”

Here is the entire Editor’s Note:

This editorial 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.

Did the Globe editorial plagiarize? Here are the relevant paragraphs from local Republican consultant Todd Domke’s August 15 piece on WBUR.org titled “Double Standard For VP — If Paul Ryan Made Gaffes Like Joe Biden, He’d Be Palin-ized,” and from the August 17 editorial in the Globe headlined “Biden should apologize for ‘back in chains’ remark.” The excerpts are presented in the order in which they appear in each article.

DOMKE: Vice President Joe Biden did it again. Speaking at a Virginia rally Tuesday that included hundreds of black supporters, he warned that Republican efforts to loosen bank regulations meant, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”

GLOBE EDITORIAL: When Vice President Joe Biden warned a Virginia rally of hundreds of African Americans that Republican efforts to loosen bank regulations meant “They’re going to put y’all back in chains,” Stephanie Cutter, Team Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said the president would have “no problem with those comments.”

DOMKE: Imagine if Paul Ryan said something so foolish and inflammatory.

GLOBE EDITORIAL: But imagine if Republican Paul Ryan uttered comments like that.

DOMKE: A similar relativity is seen in the way people view gaffes. When Biden says something foolish, liberals will continue to see it as an innocent mistake, just “Joe being Joe.”
GLOBE EDITORIAL: Liberals routinely dismiss Biden’s gaffes as the rhetorical excesses of an overly exuberant speaker — it’s “Joe being Joe.”
DOMKE: When Biden opposed Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination he had to apologize for saying, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

GLOBE EDITORIAL: Back in 2008, when Biden was running against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, he had to apologize for saying, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

DOMKE: There was also that candid video on C-SPAN where he told an Indian-American: “In Delaware, the largest growth of population is Indian-Americans, moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”

GLOBE EDITORIAL: He once told an Indian American, “You can’t go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”

DOMKE: But apparently he was joking when, during a speech in New Hampshire, he broke into an Indian accent.

GLOBE EDITORIAL: During a January 2012 speech in New Hampshire, he briefly drifted into a foreign accent while imitating a Indian call center worker.

DOMKE: At the rally Tuesday where he made the “chains” gaffe, he imitated the sign language woman and said, “You’re gonna have trouble translating all this! That poor lady, she’s gonna have tendonitis by the time she finishes this.”

GLOBE EDITORIAL: At that same rally where he made the “back in chains” crack, Biden also imitated the sign language woman and said, “You’re gonna have trouble translating all this! That poor lady, she’s gonna have tendonitis by the time she finishes this.”

Domke’s piece is 850 words, and the Globe editorial is 325 words. About 200 words — and the overall structure and argument — of the Globe editorial are either phrases that are noticeably similar to Domke’s or the same quotes Domke used. (Seventy-seven of those 200 words are direct quotes.)

The Globe never identified the editorial writer by name (other news sources did), declined to reveal what disciplinary action was taken against the writer (other news sources did) and never characterized the editorial as plagiarism.

Craig Silverman, media reporter for Poynter, interviewed Globe Editorial Page Editor Peter Canellos by email and reported that Canellos wrote to him: “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.”

I have no problem with the Globe not making public the name of the editorial writer and the disciplinary action it took; the piece was an unsigned editorial. Editorials represent the viewpoints and opinions of the newspaper and are not intended to be read as the work of any single writer, so I see no need for the Globe to reveal the name of its employee and the discipline that employee received.

Canellos, as spokesman for the newspaper, made it clear the organization considered the editorial a serious breach of company policy.

But the Globe is a big company, and the name and details of the disciplinary action eventually leaked out. Although no source for information was ever named, I trust Emily Rooney’s reporting.

What I do have a problem with is the lightness of the reported disciplinary action. Plagiarism is a serious offense. Plagiarism deceives readers, and, as I wrote in the blog post on Zakaria, deception is the opposite of what journalism should be and needs to be.

Plagiarism in an editorial is even more damaging to the journalistic integrity of a news organization than plagiarism by a reporter or columnist because the editorials are the voice of the institution. It is as if the institution committed the plagiarism, and that is why I believe the Globe should have taken responsibility more clearly for presenting as the opinion of the institution the work of another writer.

As I wrote on August 13 about Fareed Zakaria, “As someone who worked as a reporter and editor for 30 years, my first reaction is that he should be fired, immediately.” Perhaps that was too harsh, too old school. Maybe a writer with a long and unblemished record who makes a single mistake should be shown some leniency. I can see that. But a two-week suspension, after which the writer returns to his or her former position, is too lenient. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, and the leniency tells the world plagiarism just isn’t that big a deal or that serious an offense.

The online version of Black’s Law Dictionary defines plagiarism as “the act of appropriating the literary composition of another, or parts or passages of his writings, or the ideas or language of the same, and passing them off as the product of one’s own mind.”

That is precisely what the editorial did.

On Friday’s “Beat The Press” host Emily Rooney said, “It was Todd Domke’s research [the editorial writer] basically took and reconstructed and rewrote.”

That is completely wrong. The editorial writer did not build a new and different article after being spurred to thought by Domke’s piece. The editorial writer just pared down Domke’s piece, changed some words and phrases here and there and presented it to readers as the work of the Globe. Plagiarism needn’t be word-for-word stealing. Minor rewriting does not absolve a writer of plagiarism.

Panelist Margery Eagan said the editorial writer has "had a fantastic long career and I hate this sort of blood in the water that infects us now. … it’s really easy to make stupid careless mistakes on deadline.”

The problem with the editorial, Eagan said, is “more about sloppiness and carelessness than clear-cut plagiarism.”

What if the topic of discussion on “Beat The Press” were a public figure who is not a journalist — a politician, say — who had done what the Globe editorial writer did? Would Eagan and Rooney have been willing to say it was just a careless mistake, or that the politician was just using someone’s else research? Ask Joe Biden about the reporting and editorializing on his 1988 presidential campaign.

Panelist Dan Kennedy, a veteran media critic, Northeastern University professor and author of the respected blog “Media Nation,” said he did not think the editorial writer plagiarized. He attributed the similarities in Domke’s piece and the editorial to “extreme sloppiness,” noted the editorial was written “under deadline pressure” and added the editorial writer “obviously was using Todd Domke’s column as notes.”

I disagree. The editorial writer used Domke’s column more as a first draft than as “notes.”

I respect anyone who has had a long and distinguished career in journalism, but plagiarism is plagiarism. No excuses, especially not the lame “it’s really easy to make stupid careless mistakes on deadline.”

It is indeed easy to make sloppy mistakes on deadline; I’ve made my share. But plagiarism is not a “stupid careless mistake” — it is the intentional stealing of another person’s work and passing it off as your own. Misspelling a name is a careless mistake. Getting a fact wrong is a careless mistake. What the editorial writer did was not careless or sloppy or caused by the pressure of a deadline. (Journalists produce irreproachable work on deadline every day.) It could not have been anything other than intentional.

Panelist Callie Crossley of WGBH Radio, though, asked if the Beat The Press crew were giving the editorial writer "cover" and whether the Globe was doing the same because of the writer's "star status."

That’s an interesting question. Boston is a small media town, and many of us who work and have worked in the media here know each other. We’re at least acquaintances, and sometimes we’re friends of many years. Some of the people I have written about in this blog post are my friends, acquaintances and friends of friends.

I would like to believe that if the Globe editorial writer were my friend my opinions on this case of plagiarism would be exactly the same. But my opinions would be much harder for me to write and publish.

The writer whose work was plagiarized, Todd Domke, told the Herald in an August 30 article: “It’s surprising. It’s disappointing. I’d always hoped it would be The New York Times that stole ideas from me. Sometimes, I do ghostwriting for clients, but they ask me first, and then they pay me.”

The Globe didn’t have to ask or pay Domke. All the editorial writer needed to do was add a couples of phrases to the editorial that read, say, “As Todd Domke writes on WBUR.org… ,” and “Domke argues… .” Attribution is scaffolding on which reliable journalism is built.

To not attribute — to steal, to plagiarize — is a deliberate and conscious act.

When a major news organization issues only a trivial sanction against the offender, and when prominent journalists excuse away the act as mere sloppiness or carelessness, accepted standards of journalism suffer where it matters most — in the eyes of the public.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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