Although we can???t always shake the nasty habit of writing in the royal we, occasionally one of our editors decides to shake off the cloak of anonymity to write a
short, pithy statement long, rambling diatribe about a topic of their choice. Today, Debbie Newman is that editor.
A few days ago, passages from Howard Kurtz’s new book surfaced on the web, purporting to shed new light on what transpired behind the scenes at CBS headquarters less than twenty-four hours before the network ran its now-infamous National Guard story.
On the eve of the broadcast, Kurtz maintains, the veteran newsman was arguing heatedly with his 60 Minutes executive producer, Josh Howard, disregarding Howard’s objections that the story wasn’t yet fully vetted, and pushing him to run it immediately, lest CBS risk losing its “scoop.”
An incredible revelation, in light of Rather’s recent lawsuit against CBS and Viacom—in which Rather claims he’d initially questioned the report’s veracity and denied any/all culpability. At least, it would have been – had it not already been published in New York Press editor David Blum’s book two years ago.
Suddenly, with that exposure, the focus shifted immediately from Rather to Blum and finally to Kurtz himself, with media critics everywhere wondering whether Kurtz’s actions constituted a deliberate act of plagiarism or not. (For his part, Kurtz maintains he acted justly, explaining that, “since he got the information directly from [Josh] Howard, it didn’t matter that the story had already been used elsewhere.”) In reality, however, it doesn’t really matter what Kurtz’ motivations were because the definition of plagiarism is all-encompassing:
The unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.
But while motivation may not be a factor in constituting plagiarism, it’s inevitably what people are most interested in after a purported act has been exposed. And Kurtz is undeniably guilty of presenting the same story without crediting its original author, whether or not he came up on that same information entirely of his own accord, or perhaps by virtue of having read Blum’s book, and questioning Howard on that point accordingly.
If it’s the latter, than Kurtz is certainly not alone. Plenty of news outlets frequently find themselves perched on similarly precarious ethical ground, all wondering how, in this so-called Information Age, any story can accurately be deemed “exclusive,” or, for that matter, even “original.” And whether through unconscious neglect (i.e. crediting the originator of a story and omitting the secondary source that actually brought said story to your attention) or willful misrepresentation (i.e. reading an “exclusive” item elsewhere, then getting your own independent corroboration so as to intentionally circumvent the original news provider) these tiny acts of piracy are compromising the basic tenets of journalistic ethics.
This week, Howard Kurtz was exposed as deliberately trying to pass off someone else’s scoop as his own. Last week Deborah Solomon was revealed to have fabricated questions after the fact and taken quotes out of context in an effort to make her interviews more insightful. Less than a month ago, veteran French “journalist” Alexis Debat was accused of fabricating entire interviews with everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates.
Are these incidents equal in severity? Certainly not. But they are nevertheless related, if only for the fact that they show how easy it is in this day and age to obtain and manipulate information. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, Slate’s Jack Shafer likewise addressed the issue of plagiarism, concluding that while journalism is built around trust, it’s possible to have faith in the system even when that trust has been shattered by the individual.
Or, as he puts it, “most reporters don’t make things up because 1) they’re as ethical as Jesus Christ or 2) they know they’ll get caught.”
Now, four years later, when the increasing proliferation of blogs and online news sources have produced significant downsizing in newspapers and magazines across the country, keeping the number of available jobs low and the pressures to succeed in the newsroom sky-high, one can’t help but wonder if it’s only a matter of time before the temptation to cheat (i.e. capitalize on the wealth of previously reported information) and the relative ease of doing so will outweigh the fear of being apprehended.
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