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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:39 PM ET, 10/14/2011

Politico scandal: Kendra Marr and the go-go journalism culture

Just last week, Politico Pro editor Tim Grieve sent one of those rah-rah e-mails to his staff. Here’s what it said, in part:

Our web producers hit “send” this morning on POLITICO Pro’s 10,000th email alert.
That’s a big number — a tremendous achievement by Pro’s reporters, editors and producers, and a promise kept for Pro’s subscribers: When there’s news that matters on energy, health care or technology, Pro readers get it from us first.

Or second, in the case of some recent work by Politico Pro’s Kendra Marr, a reporter who joined the Pro team several weeks ago and began cranking out news-and-analysis stories on transportation. Politico’s top editors this week discovered that some of her work was borrowed from the previous work of other outlets. Marr resigned as a result of the findings.

An editors’ note on Politico.com gives the official line. It notes that editors had found examples of borrowing that violated Politico standards; that there was no evidence of fabrication; and Politico had edited the stories in question to properly credit Marr’s source material.

Beyond that, Politico higher-ups refuse to discuss the matter. Politico Executive Editor Jim VandeHei declined to comment on whether the site would show its work by publishing a side-by-side comparison of Marr’s original pieces vs. the purloinees. Chief Operating Officer Kim Kingsley writes, “Sorry, but we are not going beyond the letter to readers.”

Though answers are not issuing from Politico’s Rosslyn headquarters, there’ll be no suppressing the questions. Former colleagues and friends of Marr produce a unified description of her: sweet, industrious, earnest and dedicated to journalism. Even the editor’s note conveys the affection of the top editors toward this young talent. Her past is pretty much unblemished, save for an incident at Northwestern University, when Marr was studying journalism under a professor who reportedly had ethical challenges of his own. From the Chicago Tribune:

But details about how some of his students conducted their investigations continue to spark debate. In November 2006, journalism student Kendra Marr identified herself as a U.S. census worker when she called an Evanston man to ask about the location of his nephew, a witness in a murder case. Later, the man called Marr back on her personal cell phone and threatened to report her to census officials unless she explained why she misidentified herself.
Marr, who now works as a reporter for the news site Politico, said she regrets using deception.
“I was a student in the class, and I wish I hadn’t done it,” Marr said. “It wasn’t my idea, and as a professional journalist, I haven’t misrepresented myself since, nor do I intend to ever again.”

So if her colleagues were right about Marr, how did this happen? What prompted her to crib material from other sources and present it as her own?

Perhaps those 10,000 e-mail alerts. Politico’s go-go newsgathering culture has gotten a lot of attention over the years. Its coverage model is familiar to anyone who has ever cared about national politics. Overwhelm the reader with news items and informed analysis. First and most complete. When en route to the bathroom, never look up from the BlackBerry. (Disclosure: I formerly worked for the same company as owns Politico and very much enjoyed residing alongside its staff.)

The pace presents challenges even to seasoned reporters who’ve been on one beat for a number of years. Consider, then, how the culture weighed on Marr, a twenty-something whippersnapper who bounced around among various job descriptions at Politico.

A Sept. 19 memo from Politico notes that Marr was moving from campaign assignments to Politico Pro, a paid platform that serves some of the most knowledgeable lobbyists and policy types in the country. In her short time at Pro, she focused on transportation stories, a subject area in which Pro has not yet broken out what industry types call a “vertical.” Marr had experience in an adjacent topic area; when she worked at The Washington Post, she’d done stories on the U.S. auto industry. When asked whether The Post would be reviewing Marr’s work, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli responded that it would, as a matter of protocol.

Marr’s trail of clips at Politico Pro certainly suggests that she was overwhelmed by the national transportation beat. Of the seven Marr stories that Politico mentioned in its editors’ note, six are from Sept. 19 to Oct. 10. Witness the topical breadth that Marr was forced to span in those three weeks: funding for the Transportation Security Administration; a colossal highway project in Rick Perry’s Texas; a commuter-rail tunnel from New Jersey to New York; “shovel-ready” jobs; the Boeing factory dispute; and the nation’s debate over transportation policy.

The story on the commuter-rail train was a blockbuster tribute to Internet aggregation. Marr relied on reporting from the Associated Press, NJ.com and the New York Times, all “without proper attribution,” according to a note that Politico editors recently attached to the foot of the piece.

That’s an astonishing disclosure for Politico Pro, which bills itself this way:

“No boring stories telling you things you already know.”

That mission statement militates against attribution. If your bosses are selling information on the premise that it can’t be found anywhere else, why link and credit? Better to piece together a “scoop” from other sources and publish it as your own. (Again, it is unclear whether Politico Pro was selling Marr’s pieces under its subscription model. Its site indicates that the service covers just three areas — health care, technology and energy. The memo announcing Marr’s move to Pro describes her assignment as “an important new initiative.”)

Plenty of journalistic outfits that haven’t cultivated a Politico-style culture have had bouts of borrowing and other such journalistic sins. Yet when you combine Politico Pro’s pressure for originality with Politico Regular’s factory conditions, you get a force powerful enough to corrupt an otherwise good journalist. As The Post’s Paul Farhi reported this afternoon, a Politico co-worker said Marr “felt ‘extreme pressure’ to get up to speed.”

A colleague of Marr’s interviewed this morning by the Erik Wemple Blog had this to say: “Politico has this whole coterie . . . of very intense, up-and-coming young reporters but they’ve never covered a city council meeting, and they’re put at the White House. . . . You take a young person and rush them and put a lot of pressure on them. . . . This is not the case of a lazy reporter cutting corners; she was struggling.” (Marr hasn’t responded to a voice-mail message and an e-mail message.)

A former Politico reporter recalls the hours: From 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. in the office and availability via BlackBerry from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. “I would feel weird going to sleep before 11:00 p.m. because I would not be able to respond to my BlackBerry,” this reporter said.

The pressure, the workload, the whole culture — it probably wouldn’t be as hard to bear if a young reporter felt she could find a sympathetic ear in the upper reaches of the organization. But there’s some on-the-record testimony suggesting the opposite. A memorable New York Times Magazine story by Mark Leibovich from April 2010 carries this quote from Kingsley:

“In my experience, the people who whine about working at Politico shouldn’t be at Politico. . . . They likely lack the metabolism and professional drive it takes to thrive here. For those of us who love a fast pace and a tough challenge, this place is a calling, not a job.”

By  |  04:39 PM ET, 10/14/2011

 
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