Journalism’s Shameful Little Secret

May 27, 2009

A veteran journalist I greatly admire for her professionalism and integrity recently emailed to ask me what career advice I would give to a reporter who had plagiarized some small passages. “I think journalism is out of the question, to be honest, but is this a career killer no matter what he does?” As the PR industry has a well deserved reputation for lying and deception, I suspect the real question she wanted to ask was: “Dishonesty wouldn’t be a barrier to being a flack, would it?”

Far be it for me to defend the wrongdoings of the PR industry, but journalists stand on a rather unsteady soapbox when it comes to passing judgment on the collective ethics of public relations professionals. Plagiarism, fabrication, and other forms of dishonesty are as common in journalism as steroids in professional sports. Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, Patricia Smith, Mike Barnicle, Mitch Albom – it doesn’t take much thought to quickly recall the names of those who broke the cardinal rules of journalism and helped tarnish the industry’s once well-regarded reputation for fairness and integrity. Sadly, media plagiarism is so rampant that even journalism professors have been caught doing it.

For every reporter who gets caught, there’s no doubt countless others holding their breath hoping their inappropriate editorial shortcuts aren’t in the limelight next. We know of a few journalists who deserve to be worried. In one instance, a well-known reporter at a major magazine a few years ago lifted entire passages from a bylined article written by one of my clients. We chose not to expose the incident for fear there would be a media backlash against our client for bringing down a respected reporter. In another incident, a reporter at a competing magazine lifted wording and misinformation from an obscure publication without citing the source. The magazine in question had to run a lengthy clarification that was, of course, very carefully crafted to obscure any suggestion that plagiarism occurred.

Maureen Dowd, a popular columnist with The New York Times, and Barney Gimbel, a writer at Fortune, are among the most recent journalists caught lifting or citing information without attribution. And their responses, and those of their media brethren, provide considerable insight into the murkiness of mainstream media’s ethics.

Dowd lifted virtually verbatim a passage of more than 40 words from blogger Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. Dowd claims she never read Marshall’s work, but got the wording from an email exchange with a friend who didn’t identify the source of the information. Dowd cites the fact she credited two other bloggers as evidence she wasn’t attempting to plagiarize. She hasn’t faced any disciplinary action, and as best I can tell, has yet to concede any wrongdoing.

Gimbel, a young and amiable reporter, in February was caught using some passages from a New York Times Magazine article published five years earlier. Although he didn’t reprint the work verbatim like Dowd, Gimbel didn’t seek to defend himself by arguing that lifting passages here and there is a widespread journalism practice. Feeling deeply ashamed and fearing that he had irreparably betrayed the trust of his colleagues and readers, he voluntarily resigned thinking that was the right and honorable thing to do. He was under no pressure to do so. (Full Disclosure: At the request of a friend, I met and offered some advice to Gimbel after he resigned; I didn’t ask for compensation, but Gimbel did insist on taking me to dinner).

The media’s response to the Dowd and Gimbel incidents is quite telling. Gawker maligns Gimbel for putting “very little thought into concealing his apparent crime,” but gives him no credit for acting honorably when his wrongdoing was exposed. As for Dowd, Gawker sniffs that she “will get off penalty-free for (she says) accidentally plagiarizing” which they are fine with providing the Times finally stops weeping and wailing about how undisciplined online news outlets are ripping them off. Media critic Howard Kurtz defends Dowd with the argument that she wouldn’t deliberately plagiarize because the likelihood of getting caught was just too great. If that’s true, then how would Kurtz explain Gimbel’s transgression? Surely The New York Times Magazine is no obscure publication and the risk of getting caught, accordingly, equally strong.

The Internet is generally blamed for the declining influence of mainstream journalism, but that argument is as simplistic as blaming Japanese and German automakers for the declines of GM, Ford, and Chrysler. Foreign automakers taught us that automobiles can be reliable and well-designed; the Big Three automakers never rose to the challenge. Similarly, mainstream journalists simply cannot withstand the real-time scrutiny of bloggers, many of whom are extremely insightful, well-connected and justifiably fed up with “old school” media’s hypocrisy. Even if you buy Dowd’s defense, the fact remains she has been exposed for serving warmed-over thoughts already articulated in cyberspace. Once upon a time, The New York Times op-ed columnists were renowned for the breadth of their experience, the skill of their wordsmithing, and the originality of their commentary.

Most tragic of all is that there isn’t one mainstream media outlet today that can be legitimately cited for impeccable institutional integrity. With regard to The New York Times, I know several reporters whose ethics and professionalism are beyond reproach and whose modus operandi is unfailingly the honest pursuit of truth. But the Times, to its discredit, also publicly countenances the deceptions and misrepresentations of reporters like Alex Berenson and Edmund Andrews, who erroneously believe the ends justify the means and if a little dishonesty will get you there, so be it.

Sadly, there are far too many people in the public relations industry who believe the same thing. Those reporters and PR people are two sides of the same coin – one that’s not worth a dime to either profession’s credibility.