The Boston Phoenix
July 13 - 20, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

Cruel and unusual

Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby paid far too high a price for an unintentional lapse of judgment

by Dan Kennedy

Jacoby, at home with his son, is wondering how he'll get through the next four months without an income and whether his professional reputation has been damaged beyond repair.

Last December, Boston University media professor John Schulz resigned his department chairmanship after he was caught quoting a brief passage from a magazine without acknowledging the source. Schulz's transgression -- which came at the end of a lecture in front of 400 students, under the press of time -- was minor and apparently inadvertent. Yet Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby applauded Schulz for stepping down, writing that his professional suicide "took real integrity. A pity it doesn't happen more often."

Seven months later, Jacoby finds himself in a remarkably similar position. On July 3, the Globe published a Jacoby column on the fate of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. Although it bore some similarities to pieces passed around by Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh, in an Ann Landers column, and in various anonymous versions on the Internet, Jacoby did considerable research of his own, correcting a number of errors and producing something that was more accurate and better written than its predecessors.

Yet because Jacoby failed to note that his column was just the latest in a long string of such pieces, the Globe whacked him. On July 7, Jacoby was suspended for four months -- without pay -- for what was described as "serious journalistic misconduct." In a statement, publisher Richard Gilman said, "We cannot look the other way if any of our columnists, reporters, or writers borrow without attribution from the work of others, even in an attempt to improve upon it. The Globe will not equivocate in abiding by the highest journalistic standards and ethics." The suspension came on the heels of an "editor's note," published the previous day, stating that "Jacoby should have alerted readers that the concept and structure for his column were not entirely original."

Jacoby got screwed. Just as he was wrong about Schulz, so is the Globe wrong about Jacoby. Like Schulz, Jacoby made a small, mindless mistake. Like Schulz, Jacoby is being punished out of all proportion to his offense -- the only difference being that whereas Schulz fell willingly on his sword, Jacoby had to be pushed. Now Jacoby, like Schulz a short time ago, is fighting for his professional life, wondering how to get through the next four months without an income and whether his reputation has been tarnished beyond salvaging.

"An appropriate thing for the Globe to have done was to say, `Jeff, you made a mistake in this column. Go forth and sin no more,'" Jacoby said in an interview with the Phoenix. "If it's an offense, it's a first offense. For a first offense you don't cut somebody's paycheck off."

Unfortunately for Jacoby, it's not quite that simple. Given the nature of his transgression, it would indeed seem that a lesser sanction would have sufficed -- anything from an explanation in his column and a royal chewing-out to maybe, at most, a two-week suspension. But this, after all, is the Boston Globe, still recovering from its 1998 summer from hell. That's when the paper became a national laughingstock over revelations that two of its star columnists, Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle, had fabricated parts of their columns, and that Barnicle had plagiarized as well. Both left, but their departures were marred by the embarrassing revelation that the Globe had covered up earlier allegations that Smith had passed off fiction as fact, and by management's temporary retreat in the face of Barnicle's public refusal to resign.

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Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

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