Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Red Badge of Couric ...

The poor, embattled mainstream media, assaulted from all sides, damned if it does and damned if it doesn't, trying mightily to wave the white flag of righteousness, trying to be seen and respected through the haze of gun smoke, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal, lingering like a fog over the battlefield, trying hard to rise above the bloody fray.

And now this, this latest chink in the armor that wears a little thinner, the latest blot, the latest mark on the breast of respectability, a modern-day scarlet letter.

P is for Plagiarism.

In a story that broke Tuesday, it was revealed that the April 4, 2007, Katie Couric's Notebook entry, a blog and video blog feature of CBS News, which bears the byline "Posted by Katie Couric," lifts almost every word of its content, in whole-sentence chunks, from the March 15, 2007, Moving On column written by Jeff Zaslow for the Wall Street Journal.

Here's a handy line-by-line breakdown:

Couric: "Hi everyone, I still remember when I got my first library card."
Zaslow: "Getting our first library card was a rite of passage."

Couric: "For kids today, the library is more removed from their lives. It's a last ditch place to go if they need to find something out."
Zaslow: "The library is more removed from their lives. It's a last-ditch place to go if they need to find something out."

Couric: "If Google doesn't turn it up first."
Zaslow: "They usually turn to Google if they want to research something."

Couric: "Sure, children still like libraries, but books aren't the draw."
Zaslow: "Sure, there are still library-loving children, but books aren't necessarily the draw."

Couric: "A recent study found kids use libraries more for DVDs, story hours and computers than for checking out books."
Zaslow: "Suburban kids, especially, often use libraries more for DVDs, story hours and computers, according to a 2005 study by the Association for Library Service."

Couric: "Many kids skip the library altogether and head for the store. Sales of juvenile books rose 60% from 2002 to 2005."
Zaslow: "Many kids, of course, skip the library and head right for the store. Sales of hardcover juvenile books rose 60% from 2002 to 2005."

Couric: "It's an encouraging sign that kids value reading."
Zaslow: "That's an encouraging sign that kids still value books."

Couric: "But many tech-savvy kids never experience the joy of using the library's shelves as a place to discover new worlds."
Zaslow: "But many tech-savvy kids never experience the library as a place for serendipitous discovery."

Couric: "And students are arriving in college unable to navigate libraries with a Dewey decimal system many have never used."
Zaslow: "Students are arriving in college unable to navigate libraries. At Minnesota State University, librarian Larry Schwartz finds himself explaining to students that books are shelved by call numbers."

All uncredited by Couric.

And it's not just words on virtual paper. It's a video blog feature, too. Katie, on set, looking into the camera and reading Jeff's words off a TelePromptTer. Not just publishing them as though they were her own, but speaking them as though they were her own.

And note this nugget, in "Couric & Co.'s " "Rules of Engagement, The E-Etiquette Guide For 'Couric & Co.' ":

- snip -

We're eager to hear what's on your mind and get your comments, but we have a few ground rules that we'd like you to abide by — and we'll be following them, as well. This will insure that we are all on the same page, and behaving ourselves.

There's legal language nearby. Here's the plain English: no libel, slander, lying, fabricating, no swearing at all, no words that teenagers use a lot that some people think aren't swearing but we do, no insulting groups or individuals, no ethnic slurs and/or epithets, no religious bigotry, no threats of any kind, no bathroom humor, no comparing anyone to Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot. We expect lively debate, but comments should be polite and civil. No shoving or shouting. Please.

- snip -

"... no fabricating" and before that, speaking of the rules, "... we'll be following them, as well."


And by the way, "insure" should be "ensure": "make certain that something will occur or be the case."

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm friends with Jeff. I worked with him - a long time ago - at the Chicago Sun-Times. I'm not writing this because Jeff is my friend. I'm writing this because plagiarism is journalism's ultimate sin.

Sometimes, what does or does not constitute plagiarism is grey. A lot of words are written every day, and sometimes there are only so many ways to convey a given thought. So if one simple sentence seems common among authors, it's easy to argue that grey zone of unintentional similarity. This instance, though, is very much black and white. There is no "right or wrong" debate. This is not a case of pilfering a story idea. News outlets do that all the time. I once called John Kass at the Chicago Tribune about a story that he turned into a couple columns. The Chicago Sun-Times picked up the story, as did the local Fox affiliate, as did Hannity & Colmes. No one credited John, but no one lifted his exact words, either.

According to reports, Katie's producers write her Notebook entries. Nevermind that they're read by her in the first person. And one producer - now a former producer - wrote the entry in question.

But anyone who's in charge of putting words in Katie's mouth should know that it's wrong - the wrongest of wrongs - to copy someone else's work and pass it off as your own. It's not even Journalism 101. It's more rudimentary than that.

It's plain and simple stealing.

CBS's PublicEye web site, a site that explains itself thusly: "Public Eye’s fundamental mission is to bring transparency to the editorial operations of CBS News — transparency that is unprecedented for broadcast and online journalism" posted this mea culpa:

- snip -

"Couric & Co." Blog Apologizes For "Omission"
Posted by Brian Montopoli

Last night, an Editor's Note was posted on the "Couric & Co." blog. It reads in full:

Correction: The April 4 Notebook was based on a "Moving On" column by Jeffrey Zaslow that ran in The Wall Street Journal on March 15 with the headline, "Of the Places You'll Go, Is the Library Still One of Them?" Much of the material in the Notebook came from Mr. Zaslow, and we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece. We offer our sincere apologies for the omission.

"Katie Couric's Notebook" is a regular feature on "Couric & Co." in which Couric reflects on a particular issue on camera. A transcription of her comments is usually posted on "Couric & Co.," along with the video, which is also made available to all CBS owned and operated and affiliate stations. In addition, the audio of her comments is made available to authorized CBS Radio stations.

The April 4 Notebook has now been removed from the site. Mike Sims, director of News and Operations for, declined to comment about the specifics of the matter. "The Editor's Note speaks for itself," said Sims.

- snip -

Except that the link I provided to the April 4th Notebook entry is still live. And "Much of the material ..."? How about nearly every word? And "... we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece"? How exactly can Couric & Co. claim it as "our piece"? Nearly every word of it was written by Jeff. This isn't a case of failing to acknowledge a source or an idea. This is a case of passing off someone else's work as one's own. There shouldn't have been need for acknowledgment because the piece never should have appeared. Because it wasn't CBS's piece.

Newsweek has picked up the story, as has the Washington Post. The AP's story is appearing in USA Today, the Chicago Sun-Times, ABC News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Daily News ... (well, you get the idea), clued in, I'm guessing, by Jim Romenesko, who ran a link to CBS's mea culpa Tuesday.

This should be a big story. Because it's a big story.

Update: I noticed this afternoon that the link to the offending post on Couric & Co. has indeed been removed and replaced with the aforementioned "correction."

Update 2: I watched the CBS Evening News tonight. Katie said nothing about the plagiarism story, despite it being picked up by more than 120 news outlets around the world.

Update 3: The New York Times has weighed in, and this piece from the New York Sun is particularly entertaining. To wit:

- snip -

CBS News disclosed the plagiarism in the "Notebook" section of its Web site the night it aired, conveniently (and dishonestly) calling it a "correction." "Much of the material in the notebook came from Mr. Zaslow," the correction stated, "and we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece." It would have been fascinating to see Ms. Couric thread that needle. "Funny thing happened the other day when I was reading the Wall Street Journal piece about libraries by Jeffrey Zaslow," Ms. Couric might have begun. "Turns out I agreed with every word of it, so I'm just going to read you some of his better lines ... here we go!"

- snip -

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Blogger Jeff Hunter said...

Red Badge of Couric, clever.

9:32 AM  
Blogger SavingDiva said...

I feel like we're being a society of plagerizers. Students copy and paste papers rather than writing the words. This angers me to no end...

2:16 PM  
Anonymous girl and dog said...

Wow. I'm speechless. What kind of example are they setting??? And that apology is plain crap... More like a "we're sorry we got caught" apology, if you ask me. Thanks for posting this, Beth!

3:10 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

About the only thing more prevalent than people getting caught in the act of plagiarism these days are those who get caught calling some group of people a nasty name. (See Imus, Coulter, Washington, Gibson, Richards, etc.) Both examples of bad behavior also are mindboggling, mainly because we as a society are so on guard for future instances these days. The plagiarism thing really blows me away - it's as if Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair were just figments of our imaginations - or maybe that they were amateurs, but I - I can get away with it. Katie deserves her share of the blame, but so does the entire CBS News hierarchy, especially because they have covered the plagiarism issue over the years. They should know better. They all should know better.

Luckily for them, perhaps, the Duke rape case blew up today and Fred Thompson has cancer (what did I tell you, Beth?) and Imus still sucks, so Couric and Co. aren't getting hosed as much as they may have. But if Katie doesn't publicly apologize for this within the next 48 hours, I will be severely disappointed.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you have written one of the best blog posts on this case. The problem is that Katie Couric and CBS News did a lousy reporting job. Jeff Zaslow showed his professionalism in his column with many sources. I wish that Couric's people weren't so lazy, which is what has been bothering me since last week when I first heard her piece.

8:28 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Jeff: Thanks! I've always liked writing headlines.

Diva: I concur. There's an inexplicable laziness afoot. Because I can't believe plagiarism is about ignorance. Everyone knows that it's wrong. So those who perpetrate it must think that they can get away with it. I'm sure some do. But when it's uncovered, it's a professional death knell.

Girl: Thanks for thanking me. It's a topic that really lights a fire underneath me. And I think CBS has done a poor job of handling the situation, which fans the flames further.

Dave: You're right that the news cycle overshadowed ths story today, but I think, too, that it's not as big a story as it might have been because it's so cut and dried. Usually, in plagiarism cases, people try to make all kinds of excuses. This time, there was nothing to talk about.

Jadegreen: Thanks for the compliment. And you're right: You'd think CBS would do more to vet its stories.

8:38 PM  

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