Dowd’s changed story

Is “talking” a synonym for “emailing”? Not to most journalists I know.

Times public editor Clark Hoyt has a short item about the Dowd affair today. In talking to her own colleague Dowd walks back her line about how she was “talking” with a friend; now she admits — as was obvious — that she was actually *emailing* with a friend, and she lifted the paragraph in its entirety from that email, inserting one small wording change.

So we now have a classic coverup pattern on top of a classic “inadvertent plagiarism” incident. Dowd plainly didn’t know she was stealing from Marshall, but she either (a) knew she was borrowing from a friend and thought that was fine, or (b) needs to improve her personal workflow routines, which currently don’t distinguish between her own notes and text cribbed from others.

As I said, I don’t think a single incident of this kind of carelessness merits firing. But it merits *some* sort of reaction from the Times beyond a correction. Unless the paper thinks it’s OK for writers to lift entire paragraphs from others. Editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal seems to dismiss concerns; Hoyt quotes him indirectly as saying, “journalists collaborate and take feeds from each other all the time.” Sorry, but collaboration and using feeds are not the same thing as lifting text. Hoyt’s response is one I share: “That is true with news articles, but readers have a right to expect that even if an opinion columnist like Dowd tosses around ideas with a friend, her column will be her own words. If the words are not hers, she must give credit.”

As always, the problem here isn’t the actual incident, which is hardly earth-shattering; it’s the personal and institutional instinct to circle the wagons, which here has made it look like Dowd and the Times care more about preserving their reputations than leveling with their readers.

The “we stand by our story (or writer)” reflex is an old one that news organizations developed in a different era; it serves them poorly today. The reflex ought to change to a more cautious and open sequence of, first, “we’ll get back to you” and then “here’s exactly what happened.”

UPDATE: Dave Winer writes: “The Times is stonewalling, all of which seem obvious to me. I don’t know about other readers, but it’s this casual attitude, the inside-dealing I see both within the press and with the people they cover that makes me unenthusiastic for ideas meant to “save” them. I’m more into reformation. I want a new kind of journalism that sees incidents like this as bugs to fix.”

I share Dave’s view about viewing these problems as bugs to fix (that’s the essence of the project I entered in the Knight News Challenge). But I think “stonewalling” isn’t the right word for the paper’s response; there was a quick correction (online, at least — haven’t seen it in print, I don’t think). Stonewalling is when you give no answer or response at all. In this case, the Times and Dowd responded; they just didn’t give the full story at first. Subtle distinction.

FURTHER UPDATE: Dave notes that he meant the Times is stonewalling by not revealing the name of Dowd’s friend.

MORE: Eric Boehlert keeps pulling at this thread, suggesting that the Times can lay it to rest by producing the email that Dowd says she took the passage from.

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Comments

  1. Scott, I thnk that as always, the problem here isn’t the actual incident, which is hardly earth-shattering; it’s the personal and institutional instinct to circle the wagons, which here has made it look like Dowd and the Times care more about preserving their reputations than leveling with their readers.

    Don’t you think?

  2. Scott Rosenberg

    King: Read this once, scratched my head. Read it twice, cracked up.

    Sorry, I’m slow :-)

  3. Hey Scott:

    The idea that “talking” and digital communication are the same idea is one that I actually do share. When I’m communicating on FriendFeed, I will say that I’m in a conversation or talking with people there. I may say that I chatted with someone that I had an IM conversation with.

    The issue, I think, is not the semantics used (chatting, emailing, IMs – they are all forms of “talking”), it’s that in a Read-Write world newspapers haven’t gotten with the game that 1) it’s okay to share that information and 2) it’s okay for that information to come out (linked, attributed, ect).

    The Times doesn’t link, as far as I know, in the way that the digerati does. When I was at Wired, for instance, I liked to other source, news stories, source websites, ect. We encouraged that. So as I had conversations with people using multiple applications, we simply embedded that within the story.

    If that was the Times (or say the WSJ or Bloomberg’s) policy, my guess is Dowd would have been more inclined to add that. We’re going to see a lot more of this I suspect until news outlets get with that game.

    None of this takes away from the larger point, which I think both you and Dave are correct about. She + the Times were both very wrong in this affair.

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