Recycling Shouldn't Be a Crime
The Boston Globe is shocked, shocked to find rewriting going on.

The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Journalists often preach about the need for high ethical standards. But punishing someone excessively for a trivial offense is no more ethical than looking the other way at serious wrongdoing. That's a lesson the Boston Globe's editors need to learn.

On July 3 the Globe published a column by Jeff Jacoby, in which he described the fate of some of the lesser-known signers of the Declaration of Independence. Mr. Jacoby later explained in an e-mail that he had based his column on three similar essays--one by Paul Harvey, one by Rush Limbaugh and one that has been making the rounds on the Internet. He rewrote these essays, consulting reference works and Web sites to correct errors.

Three days later the Globe published an "editor's note" acknowledging that "aspects" of the column had "appeared in a widely circulated e-mail message and on the Internet" and criticizing Mr. Jacoby for failing to disclose this. Then, on Friday, the Globe suspended Mr. Jacoby for four months without pay and accused him of "serious journalistic misconduct."

The Globe's editors acknowledge that Mr. Jacoby didn't commit plagiarism, an offense that consists in appropriating someone else's words. So what exactly was his crime? The editor's note declared that "Jacoby should have alerted readers that the concept and structure for his column were not entirely original."

Indeed, he should have. It's always best to err on the side of disclosure, and the column would have been more interesting and timely if Mr. Jacoby had made clear that he was correcting errors in an e-mail posting that many of his readers had no doubt seen. (He did spell this out to his friends when he e-mailed them a prepublication copy of the column.)

But does such an error of judgment really amount to "serious journalistic misconduct"? Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's well-respected media reporter, doesn't think so. "I considered this a minor matter and wasn't planning on writing a word about it until the Globe hit Jacoby with the four-month suspension," he told me yesterday.

Do the Globe's editors really expect their writers to "alert readers" every time they avail themselves of a "concept" that is "not entirely original"? If so, they are setting up an impossible standard. Very few concepts are entirely original. (Surely I'm not the first to point this out.) To take a random example, the New York Times, whose parent company owns the Globe, is publishing a long series of ponderous articles on "How Race Is Lived in America." Was this an original idea? No, but it wasn't until the 10th installment that the Times "alerted readers" that the Akron Beacon Journal ran a similar series that won it a Pulitzer Prize in 1994--and the Times did so only in the context of an article about race relations in the Beacon Journal newsroom.

Granted, the Times series doesn't rely directly on previously published work, as Mr. Jacoby's July 3 column did. But even rewriting the work of others is nothing out of the ordinary. My first journalistic experience was a 1986 summer internship at the Los Angeles bureau of United Press International. One of my duties was to walk down the street to the L.A. Times every night at 8:30 and pick up a few early copies of the next day's paper. I'd take the papers back to the bureau, where an editor would pick out an article or two for me to rewrite--sometimes with attribution, sometimes without.

The following year I had an internship at KNX, a CBS-owned news radio station in Los Angeles, where I wrote scripts for anchors to read on the air. Sometimes I did original reporting, but mostly I rewrote wire copy, some of which the wire services doubtless had rewritten from newspapers. The anchors never alerted listeners that the stories they were reading weren't entirely original.

Journalists routinely recycle enough to make any environmentalist proud. So why is the Globe charging Mr. Jacoby with the journalistic equivalent of a felony?

The paper has an embarrassing recent history of ethical lapses. In June 1998 it forced columnist Patricia Smith to resign after she acknowledged fabricating characters and quotes in four columns. Two months later the Globe asked veteran columnist Mike Barnicle to resign after he used unattributed jokes from a book by comedian George Carlin. When Mr. Barnicle refused to quit, the paper instead suspended him for a month. Two weeks later he was forced to resign when he couldn't substantiate a story from a 1995 column. (Mr. Barnicle denied fabricating the story and said he had not read Mr. Carlin's books but was repeating jokes he had heard from friends.)

Because Ms. Smith is black and Mr. Barnicle is white, the Globe's hesitation to fire him prompted some readers and black leaders to charge the paper with racial bias. Even the Globe's ombudsman acknowledged a "double standard." It's hard to believe that race was the deciding factor; more likely, the Globe was comparatively lenient with Mr. Barnicle because he was more senior and more popular than Ms. Smith.

Mr. Jacoby happens to be the Globe's only conservative columnist, and some conservatives now accuse the paper of singling him out on ideological grounds. Whether or not this charge is true, the Globe's editors have failed to distinguish between an error and a crime. It's reminiscent of the 1996 case in which an Ohio junior high school suspended a 13-year-old girl for possessing Midol, an over-the-counter medicine for menstrual cramps, in violation of the school's "zero tolerance" antidrug policy.

Kids who bring medicine to school don't deserve to be treated like crack users, and Mr. Jacoby doesn't deserve to be treated like a plagiarist or a fabricator.

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