It’s a rare journalist who has never complained about the New York Times picking his pocket on a major story. These journalists rarely accuse the Times of pure plagiarism, protesting instead that one of its reporters parachuted into their backyard and appropriated their regional exclusive. Or they might howl that a Times person bigfooted his way onto their specialized beat and lifted, without attribution, some element of their fabulous story.
But as Michael Kinsley observes, most journalists owe the Times more than it owes them. The standard operating procedure at most publications—Slate included—is to commence the reporting of a new piece with a healthy Nexis dump, one that draws on the major dailies but especially from the Times. “[M]uch or even most American news reporting and commentary on national issues derives—uncredited—from the New York Times,” Kinsley writes. “Even if you don’t read the Times yourself, you get your news from journalists at other media who do.”
That said, even Times reporters incur debts to other writers that they don’t pay. Such a debt was acknowledged in yesterday’s Times, where an editors’ note found that Charlie LeDuff’s Page One story from Dec. 8, “Los Angeles by Kayak: Vistas of Concrete Banks,” failed to properly credit Blake Gumprecht’s 1999 book, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. The editors’ note reads in part:
Several passages relating facts and lore about the river distilled passages from the book. Although the facts in those passages were confirmed independently—through other sources or the reporter’s firsthand observation—the article should have acknowledged the significant contribution of Mr. Gumprecht’s research.
Gumprecht, an assistant professor of geography at the University of New Hampshire and a former newspaper reporter, says he was “fairly shocked” by the similarities between his book and the Times’ story, and that LeDuff’s borrowing went beyond accepted journalistic practices.
“At times, that article seemed to be a Reader’s Digest version of my book,” he says. Shortly after e-mailing the newly inaugurated Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent with his complaint, Gumprecht was contacted by a Times editor. At the newspaper’s request, Gumprecht annotated LeDuff’s story, line-for-line, against his book. To the Times editor, Gumprecht wrote, “What is most striking to me is how many times Mr. LeDuff’s article repeats information and ideas from a single page in my book—page one of the introduction.”
Some of Gumprecht’s objections carry less weight than others. Most Angelenos (and movie fans) know that Hollywood uses the L.A. River for car chase scenes. They’ve heard about proposals to build a freeway along its course and have seen that it teems with abandoned shopping carts, as both LeDuff and Gumprecht write. Likewise, it’s obvious to any visitor that fences, walls, and bushes obscure the river from view. These annotated findings are no more unique to Gumprecht’s scholarship than my midday observation that the sky is blue. No automatic foul here.
Yet Gumprecht’s case is bolstered by the fact that so many of LeDuff’s mundane descriptions about the L.A. River also appear in Gumprecht’s early pages. For instance, both write that the river is crossed by more than 100 bridges; some L.A. maps do not show the river’s course; the occasional kayaker still paddles down it; treated sewage and runoff contribute heavily to the river flow; and in places, the river still looks like a real river.
Journalists and scholars can debate whether LeDuff owes Gumprecht attribution. One journalistic rule of thumb states that if you independently confirm facts previously reported elsewhere, you don’t owe anybody anything in the way of credit. But most reporters and professors would grimace at the multiple overlaps between LeDuff’s 1,011-word article and the early pages from Gumprecht’s book.
The Times editors’ note maintains that LeDuff “confirmed independently” through his “firsthand observation” or consultation with “other sources” the facts and lore about the river contained in his piece. Maybe LeDuff did independently count the number of bridges over the river and just happened to come up with the same round estimate as Gumprecht. Maybe LeDuff did locate maps that don’t depict the river’s path. But Gumprecht cites LeDuff as a source to refute the Times’assertion that their man independently confirmed all the facts in his story. Gumprecht says that after he filed his protest with the Times, LeDuff telephoned him. In that conversation, LeDuff told Gumprecht of his failure to independently confirm one anecdote in his piece—which also appears in Gumprecht’s book, footnoted to an obscure magazine article—about the scheme to make the Los Angeles River better resemble a conventional river by painting its concrete blue. Gumprecht says LeDuff acknowledged that he encountered this fact only in The Los Angeles River and that he never tracked the magazine article down.
Obviously, Blake Gumprecht doesn’t “own” the Los Angeles River, and at some point attribution can get out of hand. As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, we embrace “journalism in lieu of a dissertation” because modern times demand “the curt, the condensed, the well-digested—in place of the voluminous.” In any event, you can judge the Gumprecht-LeDuff controversy for yourself: For Gumprecht’s letter of comparison to the Times, click here. For LeDuff’s article, click here. For a searchable copy of The Los Angeles River, follow this Amazon link and this link to read the introduction. (LeDuff did not return a phone message nor an e-mail inviting him to discuss the editors’ note.)
Gumprecht, who pronounces himself largely satisfied with the Times editors’ note, says he contacted the paper because it’s the newspaper of record, because the story appeared on Page One, and because the Times has been so public about addressing its credibility problems in the post-Jayson Blair and -Rick Bragg period. He also adds that he wouldn’t have protested if LeDuff had merely cited his book as a source.
When it’s so simple to credit a book in a work of journalism that wouldn’t likely exist without it, why not do it? One reason might be institutional. Alex Jones, a former Times reporter and co-author of The Trust, a history of the Times,says “the Times does not like to be beat.” The newspaper wants to stand alone and be first, and whenever possible, publish its own version of events, as opposed to wire copy or reprints from other newspapers. As these Times guidelines lay out, “Our preference, when time and distance permit, is to do our own reporting and verify another organization’s story; in that case, we need not attribute the facts. But even then, as a matter of courtesy and candor, we credit an exclusive to the organization that first broke the news.”
The Times’mania always to be first might have made sense a couple of decades ago when it was so dominant. But the new New York Times seems to recognize that it’s only the best among many newspapers, magazines, and broadcast channels and that it’s not only OK to credit other journalists—it’s glorious! “The Greenies,” as the newsroom calls its internal newsletter, now praises Times reporters for giving generous attribution to other publications, thus eroding the royal sense of privilege still held by some Times reporters and editors who still believe that facts, no matter where they were discovered or how they were generated, belonged to the Times to do with as it might.
Credit the change of spirit to Executive Editor Bill Keller or to the Web, which makes it increasingly difficult for any institution to bury its head in the sand when accusations start flying. And don’t feel shy about tipping your hat to the new office of the public editor. I’m still a skeptic about what a public editor can accomplish, but with the creation of the slot, the Times has invited readers to hold it accountable for malfeasance and mischief in its pages. Even if Public Editor Okrent’s only role in the editors’ note was forwarding Gumprecht’s e-mail, the speed with which the paper held itself accountable bodes well for everybody—readers, reporters, and book authors.
Whom did I forget to credit? Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)