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.
Esquire Executive Editor Mark Warren calls the question of credit "a judgment call" and says of Newbold's remarks: "It was clear from the context of the piece that Barnett did not represent it as his own reporting. It was a very deeply reported piece and this was a small part. I don't regard it as an egregious error at all but more as a professional courtesy."
In February, Bloomberg News reporter Tony Capaccio wrote that Pentagon criminal investigators were examining whether a Boeing subcontractor withheld information about defects in survival radios used by stranded soldiers and pilots. The Wall Street Journal wrote a similar piece a month later, quoting from the same investigative memo cited by Capaccio while reporting that the probe had expanded beyond radios. The lack of credit is "a nagging frustration when you dig this stuff out. It galls me," Capaccio says.
Journal reporter Andy Pasztor says he never saw the Bloomberg report. "Yes, they did report on the memo we cited, but ours is a much broader story about a criminal investigation that involves other programs," he says. "We try really hard as a paper to give people and organizations credit when they publish something first."
The blogger behind the Mediacrity site complained to the New York Times after the paper ran a three-paragraph item based on his scooplet that the Poynter Institute is paying a handsome salary to its online media maven, Jim Romenesko. (The item did note that some bloggers were debating the matter at Mediacrity.)
Times Public Editor Byron Calame wrote back that the information had been "independently obtained and confirmed" but that the paper would consider a correction if it received "the name and phone number of a person who represents Mediacrity." Mediacrity Man, however, wouldn't identify himself. Calame says that the insistence on a name and number is longstanding Times policy and that "if you look at the item, they were already given credit."
Where should the line be drawn? Major news outlets are actually better about this than they were 20 years ago, when they would grudgingly refer to "published reports" if they gave credit at all. But making a couple of calls to confirm a story that a journalist would not otherwise know about doesn't excuse the obligation to give proper credit. Plus, it's the decent thing to do. And it would mean a lot fewer complaints for this column.
Lobbying groups can blog, too, it turns out. The National Association of Manufacturers has started an unusually personal one just to slam Lou Dobbs.
The CNN anchor, who serves up his strong views on trade and immigration on his nightly news show, has his share of critics, but few are as harsh -- and monomaniacal -- as the "Dobbs Watch." The industry group's blog has called him "xenophobic" and "sanctimonious," assailing the "anti-trade, anti-immigration rants" of "a demagogue who stirs the basest instincts of a segment of the population in the interest of ratings."
Dobbs, whom CNN promotes as being on a "crusade," calls the Web site "silly. . . . The National Association of Manufacturers is not supporting American manufacturing but rather U.S. multinationals who want to outsource American jobs. Their pathetic blog is an expression of the corporate supremacists who are leading NAM but not representing their manufacturers. They use personal attacks because the facts don't support any of their faith-based libertarian economic philosophy."
Pat Cleary, NAM's senior vice president, is unapologetic about the blog he writes, saying its tone is "irreverent, tongue-in-cheek and a little subversive." He says that Dobbs "is wrong about trade" and that "his message runs counter to ours in such a persistent and fundamental way that I thought it was time to talk about that."
* When Mark O'Brien, a columnist for the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, wrote a piece criticizing Wal-Mart's health benefits for employees as inadequate, he drew a swift reaction: The retail giant banned the newspaper from its stores in the region.
Editor Randy Hammer told readers that a Wal-Mart manager said he would reconsider the decision "if I fired Mark." Hammer refused.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sharon Weber says the company is rescinding the ban. "We did make an error in judgment by removing the papers from our stores," she says.
* What were staffers at the Reidsville (N.C.) Review thinking? According to the Greensboro News & Record, two Reidsville reporters used photographs from a college networking Web site for a man-on-the-street feature and made up the accompanying quotes. The two reporters and Managing Editor Jeff Sykes, who admits he erred by tolerating the scam, resigned last week.
* "Today" co-anchor Katie Couric, who occasionally declares, "I can't believe I'm still doing this job!," tells the New Yorker that CBS chief Les Moonves did "reach out" to her about taking Dan Rather's anchor job -- and that although she is under contract to NBC until next May, it could be a future option.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.