Press Box

The Accidental Editor

The Los Angeles Times lifts from the Washington Post.

Only the most vain and preening members of the Washington press corps subscribe to Google News Alerts so they can track what other reporters are saying about them. So yesterday morning, when News Alerts deposited into my in-box a half-dozen links to news stories mentioning me, I swiftly clicked through the assortment.

But this paragraph from the Los Angeles Times’ “Paper Criticizes Own Reporting on Iraq” (Tuesday, May 26, 2004), stopped my mouse cold:

Many news organizations reported on claims of weapons of mass destruction before the war, though the New York Times was more aggressive than most. The failure to find any such weapons has brought growing calls by some media critics, led by Slate columnist Jack Shafer, for the paper to own up to such errors.

The paragraph was almost word-for-word identical to this paragraph from this Washington Post story, N.Y. Times Cites Defects in Its Reports on Iraq” (Tuesday, May 26, 2004), by Howard Kurtz:

While many news organizations reported on WMD claims before the war, few did so as aggressively as the Times. The failure to find such weapons has produced growing calls by critics, led by Slate columnist Jack Shafer, for the Times to own up to past errors.

Charmed as I was to be mentioned so favorably in two top dailies on the same morning, I smelled a rat. Proceeding on the assumption that one newspaper lifted from the other, I e-mailed Kurtz, who responded saying he closed his story late and never saw the Los Angeles Times piece. The writer of the Los Angeles Times piece, Eric Slater, wrote me to say 1) he didn’t see the Kurtz piece and 2) he didn’t write the paragraph. An editor inserted it, he said.

I contacted Los Angeles Times Reader Representative Jamie Gold about the overlap, and through her intervention, the Times published this “Editor’s Note” this morning:

An article in Wednesday’s Section A about the New York Times’ critically reviewing its Iraq coverage included a passage, added by an editor, that closely mirrored one on the Washington Post wire service.

The Los Angeles Times story said: “Many news organizations reported on claims of weapons of mass destruction before the war, though the New York Times was more aggressive than most. The failure to find any such weapons has brought growing calls by some media critics, led by Slate columnist Jack Shafer, for the paper to own up to such errors.”

The Washington Post story said: “While many news organizations reported on WMD claims before the war, few did so as aggressively as the Times. The failure to find such weapons has produced growing calls by critics, led by Slate columnist Jack Shafer, for the Times to own up to past errors.”The similarity was accidental and the result of adding material from several wire reports on a late-breaking news event. [Emphasis added.]

The similarity was accidental. Wasn’t that  Ruth Shalit’s defense when caught clipping and pasting from somebody else’s work? I contacted Gold for elaboration, and she responded:

The editor who added it says that he read several stories on the subject, including Kurtz’s piece, took notes from them and when Eric’s story came in, decided it needed a context graf. (This editor says he’s been following your NYT coverage for more than a year). He says he must have inadvertently picked up the language from the Post piece.

As much as I’d like to give the accidental editor at the Los Angeles Times the benefit of the doubt—especially an editor who follows my column—this explanation doesn’t wash. If the editor is such a devoted follower of my work, why did he need to take such faithful notes from Kurtz’s work in the first place? If the editor merely clipped and pasted Kurtz’s work into the story and tweaked a few words, hoping that nobody would catch his dubious short-cut (which is my guess), why won’t the Times come clean and say so? The similarity was accidental is the sort of excuse that a kid uses when he gets caught copying his book report off the Internet.

I’m not saying the Times editor committed a capital crime. I’m not saying that such an accident of similarity could never, ever befall me. But if it does, I hope I have the courage to refrain from offering excuses for my sloth and sloppiness and volunteer to take a two-week suspension without pay.

Gold and the Times are satisfied with their editor’s note. “The purpose of the editor’s note was to let our readers know that there should have been attribution and there wasn’t,” she says.

Seeing as it was his copy that got pinched, I’ll give Howard Kurtz the last word.

“I don’t think this is a huge deal. But I have a hard time understanding how it could have been an accident. It would have been nice if someone from the L.A. Times had bothered to contact me about this after the obvious similarity was brought to the paper’s attention,” Kurtz says.

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Pinching Howard Kurtz. But wouldn’t you rather tickle him? Send your preference via e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)