Sun Columnist Dismissed; Attribution Issues Cited

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Veteran Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker, who has been in a high-profile feud with Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, was dismissed yesterday over several instances in which he used, without attribution, wording similar to that employed by other journalists.

Olesker, 60, who has been a Baltimore columnist for nearly three decades, appeared to borrow language from The Washington Post, New York Times and his own Sun colleagues, although in some cases this was routine information.

Olesker said yesterday he did not intentionally engage in plagiarism. "Whether it was deadline pressure or a momentary blur or taking what unconsciously looked like ordinary language and not putting it in my own language, I screwed up. I made mistakes. Would I do it intentionally? My God, no. That would be professional suicide, unethical and immoral. I'm sick over what happened."

Sun Editor Timothy Franklin called it "a terrible, awful, gut-wrenching day" to lose a journalist "who has been provocative, colorful and taken readers to neighborhoods where others didn't go. But this was a case in which there was a distinct pattern of a lack of attribution in his columns. There were four separate instances we know about in the last year and a half. We're not out to get someone for one individual mistake." Olesker resigned Tuesday after Franklin told him he could quit or be fired.

Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said that "this does not seem like a clear-cut case" of plagiarism, since most of the examples involve "background factual material rather than descriptive narrative that is in the author's voice," and that Olesker's language was "not identical." He said it is "not uncommon practice to take background material from clippings."

Franklin acted after the Baltimore City Paper submitted questions about the similar language. That followed a Sun correction late last month about a Dec. 12 Olesker column on former senator Max Cleland that was similar to a 2003 Washington Post piece.

The Post's Peter Carlson had written: "On one of his first trips out of the hospital, an old girlfriend pushed him around Washington in his wheelchair. Outside the White House, the chair hit a curb and Cleland pitched forward and fell out. He remembers flopping around helplessly in the dirt and cigarette butts in the gutter."

Olesker wrote: "On one of his first trips out, an old girlfriend pushed his wheelchair around Washington. Near the White House, the wheelchair hit a curb. Cleland pitched forward and fell out, flopping around in dirt and cigarette butts in a gutter." Olesker said he mixed up his own work with notes he made from Carlson's story.

In another example, David Leonhardt wrote in the Times in 2004: "But the disparity in incomes between the rich and poor grew after having fallen in 2002. Pay did not keep pace with inflation in the South, already the nation's poorest region, in cities, or among immigrants. And the wage gap between men and women widened for the first time in four years."

Olesker wrote several weeks later: "The disparity in incomes widened between the rich and the poor. Pay did not keep pace with inflation in the cities, among immigrants, or in the South, already the nation's poorest region. And the wage gap between men and women widened."

Franklin said he asked the Sun's public editor, Paul Moore, to investigate past Olesker columns, and when Moore went on vacation City Editor Howard Libit picked up the task. But Franklin said Libit hadn't found the instances uncovered by City Paper media reporter Gadi Dechter, and that the Sun will make a full accounting of any other problems dating back to 2000.

Olesker got into a major battle with Ehrlich's office after writing in 2004 that the governor's communications director was "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" at a hearing where he dismissed the role of politics in Ehrlich's commercials for Maryland tourism. Olesker admitted he was not present when Paul E. Schurick spoke, but said he was just writing metaphorically.

The Sun sued Ehrlich when he directed state officials not to answer questions from Olesker and another Sun reporter, and the paper is appealing a judge's decision last year that the governor's action did not violate the law.

"Clearly, he had a bull's-eye on his back," Franklin said of Olesker. "He's been quite outspoken in his assessment of the administration in Maryland."

The columnist agreed that he was "under the microscope," in part because of the lawsuit, and said Sun editors "needed to show they're not going to allow even the slightest error."

Olesker added that he had always aspired to be a columnist: "You can't work in a town for 40 years the way I have if you don't have integrity. . . . I hope people will remember me for a 40-year career and not what happened in the last couple of days."

Asked if the incident had hurt the Sun's reputation, Franklin said: "I hope readers see we did deal with it quickly."

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