When a journalist gets caught plagiarizing the first time, he can usually duck the charge by claiming that the theft was really an accident. I mistakenly mixed my own notes and a Nexis dump. Or, It was a cut-and-paste error. But when a journalist gets caught plagiarizing a second time, it's much harder for him to plead to a mere blunder.
Last month, the New York Times conceded plagiarism when I informed it that a Feb. 23 Times dispatch had lifted—almost verbatim—two lines from an 18-month-old Miami Herald story about the illicit drug paco. The Times reporter, Alexei Barrionuevo, told his bosses that he didn't remember pinching the lines from the Herald but acknowledged that he must have retrieved them while Googling for information.
A second case of plagiarism by Barrionuevo has come to my attention. On July 15, 2005, Bloomberg News moved a story about the United States lifting "mad cow" import restrictions on Canadian cattle. On July 16, 2005, the Times ran a very similar story, also pegged to a conference call with Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns.
The Times echoes the earlier Bloomberg piece in at least four passages. (The Times passages are reproduced slightly out of sequence for the purposes of comparison.)
The first shipments from Canada may arrive at U.S. slaughterhouses in days, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said today in a conference call.
New York Times:
The first shipments from Canada could arrive at American slaughterhouses as early as next week, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in a conference call with reporters.
USDA and Canadian officials are coordinating how to certify animals for shipment, he said.
New York Times:
Officials in Canada and the United States are coordinating how to certify the animals for shipment, he said.
A U.S. appellate court yesterday ruled in favor of the government, which argued Canadian cattle under 30 months of age don't pose a risk of mad-cow disease.
New York Times:
A United States appeals court ruled on Thursday in favor of the government, which had argued that Canadian cows under 30 months of age did not pose a risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.
Tyson's beef business had a loss of $19 million in the quarter ended April 2, as the lack of available cattle boosted costs and led to plant closings. Canada before the ban supplied about 5 percent of U.S. beef.
New York Times:
Tyson's beef business recorded a loss of $19 million in the quarter ended April 2. The company was hurt by the ban on cattle from Canada, which increased costs and led to temporary plant closings. Before the ban, Canada supplied about 5 percent of the nation's beef.
Lest anyone argue that an assignment spawned by a mad cow conference call is likely to produce very similar stories, see this sidebar, where I juxtapose the opening paragraphs of the Bloomberg piece (July 15) and Times piece (July 16) with the opening paragraphs of mad cow conference call stories published on July 15 by the globeandmail.com and the Omaha World-Herald.
I alerted Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson to the similarities between the two articles. Via e-mail she responds:
It appears that Alexei did not fully understand Times policy of not using wire boilerplate and giving credit when we do make use of such material. As I mentioned to you, other papers do permit unattributed use of such material. He should not have inserted wire material into his Times coverage without attribution.
That said, because the new examples do not involve many words or an original thought, the transgression does not seem to be as serious as the first instance on paco.
I disagree with Abramson about the seriousness of the transgression.
The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism states very simply why plagiarism is wrong and how the company deals with it:
Staff members or outside contributors who plagiarize betray our fundamental pact with our public. … We will not tolerate such behavior.
Beyond that, I've got nothing to say. Send your notions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(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.)
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