The Boston Phoenix
July 20 - 27, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

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

THE PLAYERS: 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?

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.

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 advance.

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.

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