The hell wrought on Argentina by the illicit drug "paco" has already become a journalistic staple. The Christian Science Monitor visited the topic on April 5, 2006; the Miami Herald on Aug. 12, 2006; the Los Angeles Times on May 25, 2007; and BBC News on Aug. 29, 2007.
The New York Times' contribution arrived on Feb. 23 and was published on Page One of the paper. But not only does the Times piece fail to advance the paco story, it plagiarizes two lines from the Herald.
Here's the relevant section from the Herald story, published 18 months ago, with the portions purloined by the Times italicized:
Paco is highly addictive because its effect is so short—a couple of minutes—and so intense that many users resort to smoking 20 to 50 cigarettes a day to try to make its effects linger. ...
Paco is even more toxic than crack cocaine because it is made mostly of solvents and chemicals, with just a dab of cocaine, said Jim Hall, executive director of Up Front Drug Information Center, a Miami nonprofit that has been tracking cocaine abuse for more than two decades.
Now, from the Times story, similarly marked:
Paco is highly addictive because its high lasts just a few minutes—and is so intense that many users smoke 20 to 50 paco cigarettes a day to try to make its effects linger. Paco is even more toxic than crack cocaine because it is made mostly of solvents and chemicals like kerosene, with just a dab of cocaine, Argentine and Brazilian drug enforcement officials said.
I discovered the plagiarism while considering the Times article as a candidate for my "Stupidest Drug Story of Week" series. The unsourced assertion that paco was highly addictive because its high is short-acting struck me as suspicious nonsense. Plenty of drugs are short-acting without being highly addictive. A few Nexis stops later, I found the Herald piece.
Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson says that the piece's author, Alexei Barrionuevo, concedes that he lifted the two passages. Barrionuevo had been working on the paco story for a couple of weeks and realized at the end of the process that he needed definitional passages about the drug to distinguish it from crack cocaine. She says that instead of consulting his notes, which he claims contained the information, he relied on Google. Indeed, a copy of the Herald story can be found via Google.
Barrionuevo doesn't specifically recall taking the lines from the Herald story, says Abramson, but he doesn't dispute that it's very likely his source was the newspaper.
Did Barrionuevo commit plagiarism?
"Yes," says Abramson. "I think when you take material almost word-for-word and don't credit it, it is." Like most employers, the Times doesn't discuss internal personnel issues. Citing this policy, Abramson declines comment on whether a reprimand is planned.
A Times Editors' Note about the incident is in the works, she says.
This is one of those days when I don't feel like writing a flip sign-off. As always, send comments to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)