The whole media world — and only the whole media world — continues to obsess about the case of Jim Romenesko, the beloved Poynter.org aggregator who was scolded by his boss yesterday for improper attribution. Romenesko’s sin, though many critics won’t concede that characterization, was the failure to put quotation marks around certain passages taken from stories that he was aggregating.
Into the mix jumps Paul McNamara, author of Network World’s Buzzblog. The Romenesko mixup, argues McNamara, bears a resemblance to his dustup with Andy Rooney some 20 years ago. It was the summer of 1991, and McNamara was editor of Middlesex (Mass.) News. He wrote about this clash after Rooney’s retirement from 60 Minutes:
Part of my job was to handle syndicated columns written by the likes of Rooney. The post-Labor Day column. . . he filed for publication on Sept. 5 included this passage:
“Driving to work the day after Labor Day, I passed a grade school just before 9 o’clock. Mothers were hand-holding their children to the door. My mind went into fast rewind. You don’t forget your first school days.”
It didn’t happen. Rooney did not see mothers hand-holding their children to the schoolhouse door just before 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1991. He made it up.
And I know this how? Because I read that passage the day it was filed electronically by Rooney’s syndicate to my newspaper … and that day was Friday, Aug. 30.
McNamara tells a riveting tale of how Rooney pushed back at him for complaining about this point. And that’s where he draws a parallel to the Romenesko thing:
The cases strike me as similar in that they both involve highly respected icons taking liberties with bedrock journalistic principles. You can’t say you saw something you didn’t see. And you have to put quotation marks around words you didn’t write. Reasonable people can disagree as to the significance of either failure in these particular instances, but the principles remain worth defending in any case because reader confidence is at stake.
Though I believe that Poynter acted responsibly in the Romenesko affair, there’s far more gray area in the quotation case than in Rooney’s unforgivable projection of facts. But let’s open this one up to the commenters. Better hurry and post your thoughts, given that it’s a frantic Friday afternoon-cum-federal holiday: Comments section is going to be packed!
UPDATE: Post has been altered to clarify that McNamara wrote his post about Rooney after Rooney retired from 60 Minutes.