Changing the rules
More evidence that the Globe held Jeff Jacoby to a different
standard. Plus, the Herald's quest for diversity, and golden oldies
at the American Prospect.
by Dan Kennedy
At least Boston Globe ombudsman Jack Thomas is consistent. His unsparing
assessment last Monday of columnist Jeff Jacoby, now serving a four-month
suspension without pay for what the Globe calls "serious journalistic
misconduct," called to mind a similarly tough column he wrote two years ago.
His subject: then-Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, who had just been
slapped with a two-month suspension for plagiarism. Even Thomas's suggestion
that Jacoby, upon his return, do a stint as a street reporter was one he had
previously proposed as a fitting comeuppance for Barnicle.
editorial-page editor Renée Loth has signaled that she's
going to run a tight ship, and publisher Richard Gilman sent a letter
to Globe staffers affirming his commitment to higher journalistic
standards. Where does that leave Jacoby?
But Jacoby is no Barnicle, who, two days after Thomas's column appeared, was
gone for good amid still more evidence that he had plagiarized and fabricated
in his work. Jacoby is a first-time offender charged not with anything so
serious as plagiarism (no matter how passionately Thomas may invoke the word)
but, rather, with a simple failure to note that his July 3 piece on the signers
of the Declaration of Independence drew from similar essays by Paul Harvey, by
Rush Limbaugh's father, and on the Internet. The question the Globe has
yet to answer since Jacoby was all but invited to resign on July 7 is not
whether its only conservative columnist did something wrong. He did. The
question, instead, is why he is being punished so harshly, not just in absolute
terms but also in comparison to some of his fellow miscreants.
Some of these inconsistencies I've already documented. There was Anthony
Flint's recent and rather painless transfer from City Hall bureau chief to the
business section after he was caught -- in a clear conflict of interest --
soliciting letters of recommendation for a Harvard fellowship from Mayor Tom
Menino and developers he covered. And there was two-time Pulitzer-winning
cartoonist Paul Szep's double-secret two-week suspension four years ago for
copying (at worst) or imitating (at best) two illustrations (see "Don't Quote
Me," News and Features, July 14). But there are other examples, too --
including one involving the Mother Ship, the New York Times, whose
parent company has owned the Globe for the past seven years and whose
personnel policies might be assumed to bear at least some similarities to those
of its junior partner.
Last Friday the New York Times published an "Editors' Note" stating that
"five brief passages" in a June 27 obituary about British war hero Vera Atkins
"closely reflected the phrasing of an obituary in the Times of London."
Intrigued, I compared the obit not just with the Times of London, but
with the London Telegraph as well. By my analysis, seven passages
accounting for more than half of the New York Times' obit were cribbed
almost word for word from the two London papers. In one instance the
Times of London was credited, but there is no indication that it was the
source for anything more than a brief phrase. Two examples:
* Telegraph: "The confessions she obtained from Rudolf Hoess --
the former commandant of Auschwitz -- were later used as evidence during the
Nuremberg Trials. She could later hardly bring herself to recall how Hoess had
reacted to the suggestion that the deaths in the camp had perhaps amounted to
1,500,000. 'Oh no,' he retorted, as if he had been sadly misrepresented, 'it
was 2,345,000.' "
* New York Times: "The confessions she obtained from the
Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Hoess, were used as evidence at the Nuremberg
Trials. She always shuddered at Hoess's reaction to her suggestion that
1.5 million people had been killed in Auschwitz. 'Oh no,' he said, as if
offended. 'It was 2,345,000.' "
* Times of London: "After the collapse of Nazi Germany, Atkins
. . . went to Germany to investigate the fate of 118 missing F
agents. She traced 117 of them, all of whom were dead, and brought their
surviving killers to war crimes trials. The missing one had been, unknown to
her, a compulsive gambler; he vanished not far from Monte Carlo, carrying three
million francs in secret service money."
* New York Times: "After the war . . . Ms. Atkins
pushed to be assigned to investigate each of the 118 cases. She traced 117, all
dead, and brought their surviving killers to war crimes trials. The 118th had
been, unknown to her, a compulsive gambler who vanished not far from Monte
Carlo while carrying three million francs of secret service money."
The New York Times obit carried the byline of Douglas Martin. I reached
him in that paper's newsroom, fuming over what he perceived to be the
unfairness of the "Editors' Note" but otherwise unscathed. (Indeed, a
Lexis-Nexis search reveals that his bylines have continued unabated.) Martin's
response: reporters based overseas routinely lift material from local papers
and send it to the home office, which was all he was doing with the Atkins
obit. (Plagiarism-hunters, take note!) "Having been a foreign correspondent, I
probably got too lax," he told me. "I definitely won't be in the future."
In fact, Martin's task -- trying to craft something original out of a pile of
clippings -- was not an easy one. Not too many years ago, newspapers regularly
ran cut-and-paste jobs such as his, only without a byline. I remember sitting
in the Uxbridge, Massachusetts, office of the Woonsocket (Rhode Island)
Call many years ago, following my editor's orders to rewrite stories
from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette without making them look too
obviously pilfered. But when you put your name on something, you're announcing
that what follows is -- or is at least supposed to be -- your own work.
The similarities between Martin's and Jacoby's misdeeds are obvious. You could
even make the case that Martin's were worse, since Jacoby was writing about
facts that were in the public domain and conducted enough independent research
to avoid some of the more egregious errors that his predecessors had committed.
Yet Martin, by his own account, has been subjected to no punishment other than
the "Editors' Note" -- which didn't even identify him by name, unlike the note
the Globe published one day before Jacoby was suspended.
Jacoby also appears to have been a victim of the very different standards set
by former editorial-page editor David Greenway, who hired him away from the
Boston Herald in 1994, and Greenway's successor, Renée Loth, who
took over upon Greenway's retirement in May. For instance, in 1997 Jacoby wrote
a column in which he attacked the notion that Ebonics -- that is, the
nonstandard English spoken by some African-Americans -- should be recognized as
a valid variant. Jacoby opened his column with a few jokes about Hebonics
("Jewish English"), some of which he'd picked up off the Internet and some of
which, he says, were his own.
Now, passing along a few jokes that are flying around cyberspace without noting
where they came from is not a particularly serious matter. Still, what Jacoby
did then bears at least some resemblance to what he did in his Declaration
column. Had Greenway warned Jacoby that lifting the Hebonics jokes wasn't,
well, kosher, Jacoby might have learned from the experience. Instead, Jacoby
says Greenway's only reaction was to laugh and tell him, "Oh, you should have
included the one about such-and-such," thus acknowledging Jacoby's petty theft
and giving it his blessing. (Greenway, reached after the Phoenix went to
press, declined comment.) Greenway had a reputation for running a rather loose
ship; Loth has signaled that she intends to run a tight one. But though you
can't blame Loth for wanting to set tough ethical standards, it does seem that
the rules were suddenly changed on Jacoby without his being warned in
And what of the rumors that certain unknown factors entered into Jacoby's
suspension? Loth has already said that Jacoby's practice of e-mailing advance
copies of his column to about 100 friends and family members figured in the
punishment -- never mind that the e-mail proves he wasn't trying to deceive
anyone, since he included a note acknowledging that his idea wasn't exactly
original. Anything else? "This is the first and only time that we've looked at
[Jacoby] in terms of disciplinary action," she told me last week. Jacoby, for
his part, insists that the Declaration column was the only ethical lapse he has
ever been questioned on, now or at any other time.
To be sure, Globe management has recovered somewhat from its clumsy
first attempts to explain why it has punished Jacoby so severely. Internally, a
petition started by technology columnist Hiawatha Bray to reduce Jacoby's
sentence fizzled -- in part, insiders say, because publisher Richard Gilman
answered it with a letter in which he made a strong, personal commitment to
higher journalistic standards. One of Jacoby's copy editors, Bob Hardman, who
last week said it was "an arguable matter" whether Jacoby had even violated the
attribution policy, now says he has a better understanding of management's
side. "But I still think that it [the four-month suspension] was pretty
severe," he says. "I would have liked to see some sense of mercy."
So the question remains: why whack the paper's only conservative columnist with
a virtual invitation to resign when one or two weeks off without pay would have
been more proportionate to the offense? It remains a mystery, and one neither
Loth, Thomas, nor Gilman has yet adequately addressed.
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here