What Did They Say, and To Whom Did They Say It?
Monday, August 1, 2005
Journalists are expending plenty of time and energy these days accusing other journalists of the sin of ripping them off.
They got there first and deserve proper credit, the complainants say, rather than having their hard work lifted without recognition.
These are not the cases of blatant plagiarism that have cost a number of reporters and commentators their jobs. And most readers probably don't care. But in a business that measures scoops by seconds, journalists feel very proprietary about their exclusives -- and aren't shy about crying foul.
Take the case of the Deep Throat memo. On June 20, The Washington Post carried a 3,900-word front-page profile of Mark Felt by reporter Michael Dobbs, which led off with a 1973 memo that the senior FBI official had written attacking the work of Woodward and Bernstein, even as he was leaking to Bob Woodward. David Corn, Washington bureau chief of the Nation, complained that he and a colleague had posted a story about the memo online days earlier.
"I do think, very strongly, that a reporter should be upfront in crediting other reporters' material," Dobbs says. "I didn't credit the Nation because I didn't get any of the information I used in my piece from their article. I got it from going down to the FBI Freedom of Information Reading Room with a researcher a week before the Nation piece came out, laboriously going through more than 10,000 pages of Watergate material and locating the relevant memos."
Corn says it was "a bit imperial" on Dobbs's part to publish his far more comprehensive piece without "a nod of recognition" to his Internet posting. "It put The Post in the position of looking out of touch by not acknowledging that this important story had already been written about," he says.
Who's right? Dobbs is on solid ground because he already had the document, but a brief mention of the Nation wouldn't have cost anything.
On July 1, Roll Call reported on its Web site that federal agents had searched the office and yacht of Rep. Duke Cunningham, in a probe of the relationship between the California Republican and a local businessman, and the newspaper got word to CNN about its scoop. The network soon reported that "a government official confirms to CNN" that the raid took place, without mentioning the Capitol Hill newspaper.
"I saw it literally within minutes on a cable network, and it was appalling," says Mary Ann Akers, co-author of the Roll Call piece. "I understand news organizations wanting to match a story and have it on their own. But what's the harm in giving credit to the news organization that broke the story in the first place?"
CNN spokeswoman Edie Emery says that the network had "independent confirmation" and that "we often attribute enterprising stories by other news organizations."
Esquire's July issue featured a long, carefully reported profile of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by Thomas Barnett. The piece included a quote from Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold on Rumsfeld's style, saying, "If the environment's intimidating and suppressive, if it demeans, people tend to clam up."
ABC News producer Howard Rosenberg wrote to the magazine, saying he was "disappointed and surprised" to read Newbold's comments, which had been made to network correspondent John McWethy. "Newbold did not tell Barnett anything since, according to the general, he has never been interviewed by him," Rosenberg wrote.