Not so pure a view

Russell Baker

July 24, 1991|By Russell Baker

THE NEW YORK Times and the Washington Post seem to be trying to outdo each other in efforts to give plagiarism a bad name. I have this from the Media column of the Post's Style section. The Times must have published it somewhere too, but after coming across it in the Post I became too shaky to check the Times closely for fear I'd read that the plagiarism police were on my trail too.

According to the Post -- an admirable paper, let me credit it fully and gratefully! -- the Times has disciplined one veteran reporter while the Post, not to be outdone in the rectitude department, has gone all the way and fired one.

Both offenders, says the Post -- my source for this column, and a splendid one too -- both offenders had sent their home offices stories that included several paragraphs lifted almost verbatim from articles written by other reporters in other newspapers.

The two reporters may be accused unjustly. I fervently hope so, for I am appalled by the implications here. I have been told again and again about the excellence of today's journalists.

Just the other day Ray Jenkins of the Baltimore Evening Sun spent an entire column contrasting the excellence of today's journalists with the unschooled crudity of yesterday's journalists, which he is one and I another.

What is so excellent about reporters who can't even plagiarize without being caught? What in the world are journalism schools teaching in plagiarism class?

Yesterday's journalists may have lacked glossy finish but the dimmest of them would never have lifted whole blocks of paragraphs almost entire and word-for-word from another paper's story and sent it home masquerading as his own prose.

Yesterday's reporters had been taught, not by journalism professors but by reporters old enough to remember Calvin Coolidge, always to change enough words in each paragraph of the target copy, then to shuffle paragraphs around until the original author himself would have had trouble knowing he had been stripped bare.

The Post and Times may hope to lift journalistic standards by making examples of the two reporters felled by their lack of plagiaristic know-how. Let's hope though that this doesn't create the impression that plagiarism is odious to newspapering.

The fact is that plagiarism is not only an indispensable part of the trade, it also serves the public well because it disperses information wider and faster. The public's interest, after all, is in getting the information, not in getting it by ethical means.

Yes, it is shabby practice to steal a piece of painstakingly researched reporting without so much as a credit to the author, and news people who do such stuff are soon smelled out by their colleagues and treated with suspicion and contempt.

Most news plagiarism, however, consists of filching story ideas and making a few desperate phone calls to copy important news stories that a single paper may have broken exclusively.

We are talking about a job that is done on short deadlines under great pressure, with the aim of conveying the most information possible to the most people. It makes too much of too little to be finicky about some harassed reporter lifting a half-dozen facts from an AP story without first checking them.

Richard Harwood, the Post's ombudsman, raised a far more urgent question in his Sunday column. First he quoted Benjamin Bradlee, the Post's executive editor, talking to a British interviewer:

"What we write influences TV networks, it influences Newsweek and Time . . . It influences you people in the foreign media . . . Goddamit, I know where all of you (foreign correspondents) get your (bleeping) ideas from."

Then Harwood:

"If all this is true, he is describing intellectual banditry and plagiarism on an impressive scale . . . the monotonous conformity and assembly-line personality of American newspapers today creates an impression that, with few exceptions, they are edited in the same shop and produced in the same factory. That is a 'plagiarism' problem they might ponder when the next cribbing episode rattles the china."

I couldn't have said it half as well as Richard Harwood of the Washington Post. Harwood, that is. The Washington Post.

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