Kausfiles Special

Honk If the New York Times Recycled Your Story!

The August issue of Elle, which came out in July, features a long piece by Ruth Shalit on “Bully Broads,” an executive training program that teaches aggressive women managers how to make themselves more popular by stuttering, crying, and generally appearing more vulnerable. Shalit’s article placed Bully Broads in the context of the anti-feminist trend exemplified by the marriage handbook The Surrendered Wife. After interviews with Bully Broads participants, the piece ended with a bittersweet anecdote implying that it’s not so easy or desirable to repress the assertiveness of some of these women.

The front page of last Friday’s New York Times business section featured a piece by Neela Banerjee on “Bully Broads.” Banerjee placed the program in the context of the general anti-feminist trend exemplified by The Surrendered Wife. After interviews with participants, Banerjee ended with a bittersweet anecdote (“Hell, maybe we can’t be reformed after all”).

Banerjee’s well-written piece doesn’t technically trespass on Shalit’s. There seems to be no lifted language, or lifted reporting. Still, it’s essentially a redo of the same article on the same subject. Should the Times have given Shalit or Elle credit? Contacted by kausfiles, Banerjee freely allowed that it was after she’d read the Elle article (“a really good piece”) that she proposed the idea to her colleagues. She noted that Good Morning America had also done a Bully Broads segment (crediting Elle, it turns out). More important, in Banerjee’s view, a NEXIS search turns up two short pieces that described the basics of Bully Broads before Shalit did–one in the San Francisco Chronicle and one in Businesss Week. It’s “not like she had broken the story,” Banerjee told me; if she had, the Times would have been happy to say “as first reported in Elle.” But she hadn’t. “I would never write ‘as extensively reported in Elle,’ ” Banerjee explains. As for The Surrendered Wife–it was obvious, Banerjee argues. You “couldn’t write this piece” without it.

Fair enough. It’s a clean steal! After all, if the Times gave credit every time it ripped off another publication–sorry, I mean every time one of its stories was informed by previous extensive reports!--there’d hardly be space for anything else. But clearly the Times’ apparent rule (that no credit is necessary as long as a NEXIS search reveals prior pieces, however cursory, on the same topic) opens up a wide territory for shameless copycat reporting and analysis.

There was once a crude professional custom that helped handle this dilemma. Call it the Ripoff Rule. Under the rule you could steal as much of a piece as you wanted as long as somewhere you mentioned the reporter from whom you stole it. You didn’t have to give others the credit they deserved. You just had to mention them, in however trivial a context (usually by quoting them gratuitously). Clearly this rule is not operative at the Times.

Is there any way, then, that journalists who find their ideas recycled in America’s premier newspaper can have their prior work acknowledged? You’re reading it! With some trepidation, kausfiles announces its Props Review Service. If you feel the Times has glommed on to your idea or your reporting, e-mail us and our staff will review your claim. If it holds up, the verdict in your favor will be announced in this space. We’ve assigned kausfiles’ crack intern, David Manning, to handle the expected high volume of requests.

Important note: The Props Review Service applies only to stories redone by the New York Times. If you have a “clean steal” complaint against another publication, I don’t want to hear about it! Were kausfiles to try to give fair credit to every reporter whose output was appropriated by another reporter, we’d melt our servers. But the New YorkTimes, sitting on top of the journalistic heap, is special. When it writes a story, it tends to get credit for it–and the credit is likely to stick, whether it’s deserved or not. The Times is thus in a position to consistently get away with murder, props-wise. How many people now think “Bully Broads” is Banerjee’s story?

P.S.: I recently read a description of the Ripoff Rule somewhere. I forget who wrote it. But have I mentioned that Joshua Micah Marshall is a very nice guy?

P.P.S.: Banerjee’s “Bully Broads” piece is good. Shalit’s is better, adding another layer of analysis (e.g., the “Bully Broads” course doesn’t really reflect crude anti-feminist thinking, but rather the “difference feminism” of Carol Gilligan). But then the Times doesn’t have the sophisticated readership of Elle.

P.P.P.S.: Shalit is a friend of mine, as is her Elle editor, Laurie Abraham. So?