It happens every week, over and over: People send me on-the-record quotes about this story or that story over e-mail. My usual reaction is to hit Ctrl + C, jump over to The Washington Post’s blog tool, hit Ctrl + V, and publish the quote.
I don’t remember a single occasion in which I’ve pasted a quote into a Google search to check whether someone else had published it beforehand.
Yet perhaps if I’d received the following quote via e-mail, I would have recoiled. And perhaps — just maybe — I would have researched its originality:
I did not pick these men. They were delivered by fate. But I know them in a way I know no other men. I have never given anyone such trust. They were willing to guard something more precious than my life. They would have carried my reputation, the memory of me. It was part of the bargain we all made, the reason we were so willing to die for one another.
That was the quote that columnist Oliver North received from Army veteran Sammy L. Davis for a piece that North was writing about Memorial Day. North dropped the quotes into the column, which was published by FoxNewsInsider.com.
Yet as Paul Farhi of The Washington Post writes, those words didn’t originate with Davis or North. They come from “These Good Men: Friendships Forged in War,” a memoir by Vietnam vet and New York University journalism professor Michael Norman.
The juicy stuff in Farhi’s piece relates to how Fox treated this episode. When it was alerted to the problem by The Post, Fox at first attached an editor’s note to North’s column that “mentioned, without explanation, that the paragraphs had been removed and that North had included them ‘through no fault of his own.’ ” Then it disappeared the column altogether. Fun Fox escapades, as always.
As always, Fox misunderstands journalism. When your byline sits on top of a column, its hygiene is your job. If someone sends you a quote containing a factual inaccuracy, that’s a correction. If someone sends you a quote containing libel, that’s a lawsuit. And if someone sends you some copy that’s poetic and glorious and true and powerful and couldn’t possibly have been written off the cuff for an e-mail exchange, that’s plagiarism.
There’s no reason to doubt North’s claim that he didn’t know what he was doing when he published the quote. It’s another reminder: Journalists are only as good as their sources.