Plagiarism and apology: The New York Times lifts from City Hall.

Media criticism.
March 11 2008 6:03 PM

Plagiarism and Apology

The New York Times lifts from City Hall.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

New York Times Standards Editor Craig Whitney apologized to Manhattan Media this afternoon after today's (March 11) Times lifted from a Manhattan Media story published on the Web and e-mailed to a media list yesterday.

The lift, taken from Manhattan Media's City Hall piece about New York Lt. Gov. David Paterson, appeared at the end of a Times story about the succession process should Gov. Eliot Spitzer resign.

City Hall reported:

Speaking at an On/Off the Record breakfast held by City Hall and The Capitol in late October, Paterson took a pause from explaining the nebulous role of the lieutenant governor in office to remark on bringing the national lieutenant governor's association to Buffalo this spring.

The Times reported:

Speaking at a breakfast in late October, Mr. Paterson took a pause from explaining the nebulous, mainly ceremonial role of the lieutenant governor to muse on his initial reluctance to attend a meeting of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.

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(Emphasis added to both excerpts.)

The Times article also reproduced a Paterson quotation from City Hall, which it did not attribute to City Hall.

In his e-mail to Manhattan Media President Tom Allon, the Times' Whitney writes:

Dear Mr. Tallon [sic]:

[Times Executive Editor] Bill Keller asked me to look into the question you raised about the similarities between the last two paragraphs of Nick Confessore's story today and two paragraphs from an article by your editor, Edward-Isaac Dovere, that was e-mailed last night.

You are right; the similarities are not coincidental, though the way they came about was bad luck.

Confessore, working on deadline, was getting feeds of on-the-record quotations from Lieutenant Governor Paterson from other reporters, and one of the reporters e-mailed to him (also by that time under severe deadline pressure) the two paragraphs from the article in The Capitol, thinking that the phrase about the breakfast being "held by City Hall and The Capitol" was a clear enough indication of the source of the two paragraphs; he gave no other indication of their source.  Confessore thought the introductory paragraph had been written by the reporter who sent it, and beyond superficial paraphrasing, did not see a need to attribute it.

Both reporters involved are chagrined. Neither intended to plagiarize.

Both have been reminded of the dangers of cutting-and-pasting. And we apologize to you and to Mr. Dovere.

Sincerely,
Craig Whitney
Standards Editor

(I believe Whitney's first reference to the Capitol, another Manhattan Media publication, is mistaken. I think he means City Hall.)

David Blum, editorial director of Manhattan Media and editor-in-chiefof its New York Press, expresses his dissatisfaction with Whitney's explanation via e-mail. He writes:

whitney's explanation doesn't make sense.  the story in question had a single byline and no contributors' tags, so whitney's defense that confessore was writing from another reporter's files doesn't jibe with new york times policy about credit. [See addendum to this story below.]  also, whitney says only that reporters were sending confessore quotes, so why would confessore think that the contextual material was written by an (uncredited) new york times reporter? the email refers to the "reporters involved" but doesn't identify the second reporter being blamed.  given that this email acknowledges that dovere's article was plagiarized, and blames it in part on a second, uncredited reporter, shouldn't this second reporter be identified?

it's easy for the new york times to always excuse plagiarism on "cut and paste" issues and label it "inadvertent" -- but it seems both a convenient and flimsy defense in this case, if true at all.  newspapers are always on deadlines -- and the new york times should know how to handle copy on deadline without plagiarism, inadvertent or otherwise.

Nobody appointed me as Solomon in this dispute, but here goes.

The Times admits that it plagiarized City Hall, but did so inadvertently. As all plagiarism cops know, intent is no defense. But Whitney isn't erecting a defense. He's explaining how the plagiarism happened, an account I find plausible. He apologizes, which is the right thing to do, and he reports that all the mentally tardy individuals at the paper responsible for the transgression have been reminded of proper Times procedure.

No, Whitney doesn't identify the second blamed reporter, and he probably should. And Blum is right to insist that the Times should know how to move deadline copy without plagiarism, inadvertent or otherwise. I don't think he'll find opposition to that view inside the Times.

The key for me is that the Times accepted institutional responsibility for the transgression in near real time and apologized. If only every case of plagiarism came this close to being settled this quickly.

Addendum, March 12: Blum read the Times story in question on the Web, which is also where I read it. No contributors box ran with that version. However, the Times did run a contributors box—listing 22 names—in the New York print edition of the paper on Page B4. The box and the story in question did not run in the national edition of the Times, which is what I read here in Washington.

Via e-mail, Blum writes: "That certainly answers the question I raised yesterday. I appreciated the Editors' Note that appeared in the New York Times today, and agreed completely with what you wrote regarding the Times' prompt explanation and apology."

*******

Disclosure: I know Times reporter Nicholas Confessore professionally. Send your plagiarism war stories to slate.pressbox@gmail.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.)

Track my errors: Here's a hand-built RSS feed that will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the words Manhattan Media in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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