Tom Scocca: I go away for a weekend and Maureen Dowd gets caught plagiarizing?
Choire Sicha: You went away for a weekend? That's so unlike you!
Tom Scocca: We can't all have a house on Fire Island.
Choire Sicha: That island is only so wide, after all. But yes! You turned your back and suddenly Maureen Dowd is in the Scandal Of The Century Of The Moment.
Tom Scocca: Albeit sort of a listless scandal, it seems, thanks to the we're-all-dead-who-cares cloud hanging over Romenesko these past many months.
Choire Sicha: The graveyard of the formerly employed? Sure. We live there too!
Tom Scocca: And how! At least Howie Kurtz still gets to take vacations, from his job. But he interrupted it to do a chat.
Choire Sicha: He went to a Lakers game!
Tom Scocca: He is a television star.
Choire Sicha: According to his Twitter: "Lakers cheerleaders. in tight Terminator T-shirts, doing some serious T and A."
Tom Scocca: OW NO STOP PLEASE.
Choire Sicha: It's important that you know this about him!
Tom Scocca: I thought nothing was creepier than David Denby's constant sweaty oversexualizing of everything, but no, this, the URGES of Howie Kurtz…no, no, no, no.
Choire Sicha: All men have urges.
Tom Scocca: Including for instance the urge to poop, but you don't see them sharing THAT. Yet.
Choire Sicha: Can't wait for that rash of memoirs.
Tom Scocca: I have wondered for a long time why no one has done it, yet. It's like fly fishing. Why are there so many books about fly fishing? Because fly fishing is really boring.
Choire Sicha: That seems counterintuitive!
Tom Scocca: See, if a writer goes and does it, he can't help but stand there and form sentences in his head. This is also why so very much contemporary short fiction involves people on airplanes. You sit down; you are bored; you become very attentive to detail. You think this is because the detail is fantastically revealing about the workings of this world–the rimpled surface of the trout stream! The off-center latch of the tray table–but really it's just your brain cranking up the gain to create stimuli in the absence of stimulation.
Choire Sicha: A waking dream-state. Mmm, modernity!
Tom Scocca: A leaf flutters down, flashing golden as it turns through the slanting sunlight. So I don't see why nobody has gotten around to belletrizing the experience of sitting on the can.
Choire Sicha: Don't tempt me! Or, you know, don't tempt Nicholson Baker.
Tom Scocca: Anyway, speaking of pooping it out:
First, I'm on vacation. Second, what Dowd did, while clearly an embarrassment, hardly falls into the same category as the serial fabrications of Jayson Blair that I exposed six years ago. Third, Maureen quickly admitted her mistake and is running a correction.
Tom Scocca: That's Kurtz. Still tooting his horn about Jayson Blair.
Choire Sicha: 1. Oh, Jayson Blair. 2. I did not realize Maureen Dowd was in charge of corrections at the Times!
Tom Scocca: Yes, well, No. 1 is a sore subject for me. Seeing as I was Erik Wemple's editor at the time. At least on the media beat; otherwise, he was my editor.
Tom Scocca: Erik's story was ready to go more than an hour before Kurtz's appeared, but Washington City Paper was owned by the Chicago Reader at the time, and nothing was allowed to be published to the Web without specific clearance from the overbosses at Reader HQ, whose entire attitude toward the Web was petulant denial. Their "Internet strategy" consisted of jamming their fingers in their ears and hollering "LA LA LA LA WE CAN'T HEAR YOU." You might recall that these are the same clowns who sold off their papers–to a trust-fund brat from West Catfish Hump, South Nowhere–because they just couldn't find a way to make a go of it in the Internet Era.
Choire Sicha: I remember that!
Tom Scocca: Yeah, well, they sat through a full round decade of the Internet Era refusing to try anything at all, then cashed out and quit.
Choire Sicha: Seems sensible.
Tom Scocca: Unfortunately the kid from West Catfish Hump didn't have a theory of weekly alternative journalism beyond "Superchunk at the Civic Center next Thursday!" and promptly went bankrupt trying to run papers in actual cities. Seriously, he makes those cowboy-hat dudes who wrecked the Village Voice look like William Randolph Hearst.
Tom Scocca: But: Howie Kurtz, and the Em Ess Em!
Choire Sicha: Oh right, that!
Tom Scocca: The Jayson Blair case is interesting to me, in retrospect, because though Howie published 20 minutes earlier (with less information), in fact the entire Blair-Howell Raines saga could have and would have happened without him writing anything at all. Howie Kurtz has always been a terrible bigfooter, who never credits anyone if he can possibly avoid it.
Choire Sicha: It's been a good tactic for him!
Tom Scocca: The facts are the facts, and if he can call the same people and get them to say the same things, then the story belongs to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and CNN's Reliable Sources, and the fact that someone else reported it first doesn't matter.
Tom Scocca: There's a beautifully revealing moment in his Maureen Dowd discussion, in that regard:
But again, it would have been a snap to rewrite that sentence, so it does seem to me to fall into the category of an inadvertent mistake.
Tom Scocca: "Rewrite" is such a funny verb, there.
Tom Scocca: Long ago, when information resided in things made out of paper called "reference books," the technique he's referring to might have been called the "Britannica and thesaurus method." And it would have been regarded as a form of plagiarism.
Choire Sicha: Things that you do not have, becoming things you do have.
Tom Scocca: Critics would have viewed it as a kind of plagiarism.
Tom Scocca: See what I did there?
Choire Sicha: HA I DID!
Tom Scocca: Exact same idea, slightly different words.
Choire Sicha: You… rewrote… someone else's… idea! Why would you do that?
Tom Scocca: Because I didn't have an idea of my own.
Choire Sicha: That is so sad. What happened to your ideas?
Tom Scocca: I used them up on my CNN TV show, maybe.
Choire Sicha: Maybe you were too chatty at a dinner party and had nothing left to say.
Tom Scocca: But you see, what we are getting at here is a fundamental confusion about what it means, in journalism, when a writer's name is attached to a story, preceded by the word "by," or perhaps by a stylish little hyphen, or maybe just offset between rules. There are different beliefs about this, the byline, and what it really means.
Tom Scocca: One theory is that it is a mark of literary authorship–the creative brand identity of a Writer who puts words together in a novel and artistic way.
Choire Sicha: Sure. That's a hybrid of some old and some new ideas.
Tom Scocca: This is what Howard Kurtz means when he suggests that Maureen Dowd should have taken the time to "rewrite" the passage. This is what the theory was when Rick Bragg sent J. Wes Yoder out to go see scenes and interview people–Yoder's labor would produce "material" that would be "written" into a story under the byline of Rick Bragg.
Choire Sicha: Not a crazy system, in some ways!
Tom Scocca: It is a long-established system, but I think it is the wrong system for journalism.
Choire Sicha: I don't care for it much myself. The problem comes in because if you are back at home base, you are then telling a story that someone told you
Tom Scocca: Exactly. When I'm writing or editing, and especially when I am working in that middle ground in between writing and and editing, what I care about is epistemological responsibility.
Tom Scocca: Who says this is so?
Tom Scocca: The reporter says it.
Choire Sicha: Ha, you sound like a seder.
Tom Scocca: Bitter herbs all around!
Tom Scocca: The name on the story should be the name of the person who has the strongest firsthand connection to the facts and the reasoning.
Choire Sicha: That's a sensible idea. As far as "ideas" go.
Tom Scocca: This is one of the several places that Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal went wrong about the Dowd incident:
Journalists often use feeds from other staff journalists, free-lancers, stringers, a whole range of people. And from friends.
Tom Scocca: "Feed" in this case seems to mean "unverified information."
Tom Scocca: Or "unaltered text."
Tom Scocca: And that stuff needs attribution.
Choire Sicha: Well of course people would use things from people who work for them. Because they are employed, for better or worse, to provide information! Professionally! Unlike friends.
Tom Scocca: It needs attribution not because the author of each little gem is owed literary credit, but because the reader deserves to know what's firsthand and what's secondhand. I grant a big exemption for jokes and funny lines, because, really, who cares? The old "as one wag put it" device is as bad as a sitcom laugh track.
Choire Sicha: It seems to me, maybe incorrectly, that I care more about that in the news section than I do in the op-ed section.
Tom Scocca: It is true that Frank Rich's assiduous hypertext source-citing comes off a bit sandblaster-y. But it might not seem that way if he were only ranging over 750 words' worth of material.
Tom Scocca: But, yes, op-ed. Therein is the problem.
Choire Sicha: There's a problem????
Tom Scocca: You're damn right there's a problem. Howie Kurtz had to interrupt his vacation!
Choire Sicha: What is "vacation"?
Tom Scocca: It's like being unemployed, except you get a paycheck.
Choire Sicha: Oooh that sounds great!
Tom Scocca: Anyway, you see, it's perfectly acceptable to publish under your byline certain facts, observations, and ideas that did not originate with you. Also jokes! The people with whom that supplemental material originates are called "editors." "Hey," the editor says, "where you talk about X, here, it seems a little thin–shouldn't we put in something about Y, also?" A good editor should make sure that the writer is comfortable with the truth and accuracy of the additions.
Choire Sicha: Ideally!
Tom Scocca: "A good editor," I said. Like "no true Scotsman." But Maureen Dowd writes for the New York Times op-ed page, which means that–as a point of institutional practice and pride–she does not have an editor.
Choire Sicha: Right! Freedom!
Tom Scocca: In many respects, the job of writing op-ed columns for the Times is one of the sweetest rackets in the business. I'd sure take it! You write 1,500 words a week, with a full-time assistant.
Choire Sicha: Unlike the rest of us, who wrote 1500 words before lunch, with no assistant.
Tom Scocca: And no paycheck!
Choire Sicha: Well details, whatever. The thing is, people become op-ed columnists because they are very good at what they do! Columnizing. Opinionizing. For instance, Gail Collins, who has been a surprise to me.
Tom Scocca: Gail Collins is really good.
Choire Sicha: She makes me LOL.
Tom Scocca: But now that we have seen Gail Collins' funny, incisive sensibility in action–how much better would the op-ed pages have been if Gail Collins had been responsible for actually editing the columnists, when she ran the editorial page? As in saying, "You know, David, you're trying to make two opposing points at once here," or "Tom, why don't we pare down this metaphor a little?" and sending the copy back to them for another go-round?
Choire Sicha: That sounds wonderful.
Tom Scocca: The idea behind not doing this seems to be that the columnists are such august and dignified thinkers that it would be rude to interpose an editor between their thoughts and the public.
Tom Scocca: But what was Maureen Dowd doing, in the most plausible and intelligible account of how a paragraph from Joshua Marshall ended up in her column?
Tom Scocca: She was using a batch of friends to do the job an editor wasn't doing for her.
Choire Sicha: Who would ever do that? *Laughs nervously*
Tom Scocca: Again, she has a fabulous racket, and I am harsh on plagiarists, and it would be just and satisfying if she got fired and they gave us her column instead. I am not playing my tiny little violin for Maureen Dowd.
Tom Scocca: But the Times could have avoided this problem–and many other problems, including the whole Bill Kristol debacle–by hiring an editor to edit the columnists.
Choire Sicha: Why wouldn't they do that? Would the columnists all huff off and quit?
Tom Scocca: All the more reason to try it!