Press Box

Something Borrowed

A plagiarism incident that may have escaped your attention.

An editor who tells a reporter to chase a competitor’s scoop may want the reporter to come back with a similar story—but ye gods!, he never expects his reporter to actually grab the competition’s story, cut a piece out, and insert it in his own, as a story appearing under the byline of New York Times reporter Kenneth N. Gilpin appears to have done last month. The transgression has gone unnoticed in the press.

On June 17, the Times published a Web-only “Editors’ Note” stating that a June 9 nytimes.com online storyclosely copied language from three passages in the Wall Street Journal’s printed article of that morning. The borrowing was improper, and should not have occurred.”

Indeed, the nytimes.com news story about the Coca-Cola Co., which carries Gilpin’s byline, borrowed, lifted, sponged, pinched—whatever your favorite euphemism for “plagiarized” might be—from the Journal, as these excerpts illustrate. From the Wall Street Journal:

Coca-Cola Co. thought it had a big hit earlier this spring with “Buddies,” a TV spot that features two friends taking a break from a game of hoops. The first guy to the fridge gulps his Coke, then uses his friend’s can to cool off, pressing it to his forehead, neck and stomach before sticking it sideways in his armpit. When the friend arrives, he is handed the second Coke and starts swigging it with no clue where it had been.

From nytimes.com:

The ad features two friends taking a break from a game of pick-up basketball. The first character goes to the refrigerator, gulps his can of Coke, then uses his friend’s can to cool off, ultimately pressing it sideways in his armpit. When the friend arrives, he is handed the second Coke and starts to drink it with no idea where it has been.

From the Wall Street Journal article:

The commercial, developed to run during the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, scored higher among teenage viewers for brand awareness, persuasion and likability than any Coke ad in 10 years, according to people familiar with the company’s marketing development.

From the nytimes.com article:

Mr. Heyer defended the ad, saying it scored higher among teenage viewers for brand awareness, persuasion and and [sic] likability than any Coke ad in 10 years.

From the Wall Street Journal article:

Mr. Keough declined to comment on the armpit spot, but a person familiar with the situation says the ad’s scheduled three-month run was cut short by about two weeks because Mr. Keough and other critics thought it was lowbrow and didn’t match the wholesome image traditionally used to sell Coke.

From the nytimes.com article:

The ad’s scheduled three-month run was cut short by about two weeks because Mr. Keough and other critics thought it was unseemly and didn’t match Coke’s traditionally wholesome image.

Gilpin’s story was written for the Web only, so it was not a candidate for the print edition of the Times. (Another writer was assigned to the topic, and his piece ran.) * However, a shorter version of Gilpin’s article, including some of the “borrowings,” ran in the pages of the Times’ Paris affiliate, the International Herald Tribune, on June 10. The IHT published its corrective “Editors’ Note” on June 24.

A Journal spokesman says the matter has been resolved to the newspaper’s satisfaction and declined additional comment. Gilpin also refused to discuss the incident. A Times spokeswoman deflected a question about whether Gilpin had been reprimanded, e-mailing back that “Employee relations are an internal matter.”

(The Times appears to have erred in its June 17 “Editors’ Note” by stating that the nytimes.com story borrowed from a Journal article that appeared June 9. I believe the pilfered piece appeared June 8, which a Journal spokeswoman confirmed.)

Gilpin’s Times bylines stretch back to at least 1980, so he’s a veteran and no easily rattled tyro. What on earth could have possessed him to nip Journal copy and tuck it into his story—if that’s what happened. (I have no evidence to suggest that an editor or some “sinister force” did the deed.) Pinching from the Journal is about as subtle as cribbing from a Times Square billboard. You might as well stand on your desk in the newsroom and announce your burglary at the top of your lungs.

The plethora of Romenesko links to stories about journalistic larceny would suggest that we are in the middle of a national plagiarism epidemic. This week, Romenesko linked to pieces describing lifted copy at the Miami Herald and the Macon Telegraph. But maybe the stories are less a proof of a plagiarism epidemic than they are of an upsurge in plagiarism detection. The most interesting thing about the Gilpin case is that no matter how the lifted words got into his copy, they were discovered almost immediately by the Journal. The very technology that makes plagiarism so easy to commit—Nexis, Factiva, and Web access—also simplifies its detection. With more and more beat reporters using Web “news trackers” to keep abreast of what the competition is writing, only the most reckless writers would consider stealing.

Plagiarism bugs most writers because they think it injures them, and they’re right. Their “intellectual property” is getting ripped off! But plagiarism mostly sucks because it defrauds readers. The implied warranty of a newspaper is that the work contained within is original (unless otherwise billed) and worthy of your attention because it’s fresh and up to date. Any other arrangement is a swindle. You wouldn’t sell a 1-year-old stolen car as new. Newspapers shouldn’t be any different.

I did not write this item to embarrass the Times, which appears to have handled the affair by the book. A lesser paper would have “unpublished” the transgressing Web article and soft-pedaled the editors’ note. My intent isn’t even to shame the Times plagiarizer, but to tap the shoulder of the aspiring plagiarist who may be deterred by this piece. Watch your step, fella, the Web has a billion eyes.

******

Thanks to Eric Umansky for alerting me to the Times “Editors’ Note.” I’m going on vacation for a week: Send postcards to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Correction, July 7, 2004: The original version of this story erronously stated that the Gilpin story was intended for publication in the print version of the Times. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)