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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 11:04 AM ET, 10/14/2011

Politico scandal: Come cleaner!

Politico breaks all kinds of stories, including those about its own transgressions. Last night at 8:34 p.m., it published an Editor’s Note outing itself for violations of journalistic integrity. Here’s the money part of the note:

Examples of stories on transportation issues that bore troubling similarities to work earlier published by others. Some of these examples involved specific turns of phrase or passages that bore close resemblance to work published elsewhere. Others involved similarities in the way stories were organized to present their findings.
None of these examples represented invention of quotes, scenes, or other material. Our inquiry did conclude that there had been an unacceptable violation of our journalistic standards. Material published in our pages borrowed from the work of others, without attribution, in ways which we cannot defend and will not tolerate.

Those stories bear the byline of Politico reporter Kendra Marr, who resigned yesterday over this episode — facts that are also in the editor’s note. The note carries this statement of values:

Our standard at POLITICO is to be candid with ourselves and our readers when we err, and to move swiftly, fairly, and transparently to ensure that we maintain public trust. We have added clarifications on all pieces in which we have discovered problems with improper borrowing and inadequate attribution, and will do so on any others that we discover.

When asked if he could chat about these events, Jim VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor, e-mailed the Erik Wemple Blogger to announce that the editor’s note “speaks for itself.”

To a point. The note discloses the violations. It asserts Politico’s values. And it includes links to the stories in which a Politico investigation found problems.

What it doesn’t do is facilitate an assessment of what happened. Take a look at this troubled Marr story. It’s titled “TSA not flying high fiscally.” At the foot of the story — on page 3, no less — this text appears:

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story drew extensively on reporting from The New York Times without proper attribution. POLITICO regrets the omission. More information is available here.

What that note means is that Politico has wiped the record clear. Its readers cannot go to the site and judge for themselves how egregious or how mild the borrowing was. That’s just what’s needed here, for the good of Politico and of Marr as well.

Absent a Politico-generated side-by-side display of Marr’s original work vis-a-vis the stories from which she allegedly purloined material, it’s easy to assume the worst. The editor’s note states the following: “None of these examples represented invention of quotes, scenes, or other material.”

That’s a good thing. But if Politico really wants us to believe its conclusions about the level of journalistic malpractice in this case, it should take its transparency to the next, logical level. Publish a side-by-side disclosure. When asked why there was no such presentation, VandeHei declined to comment but said he’d get back to me on the question.

By  |  11:04 AM ET, 10/14/2011

 
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