Journalists wrestle with ethical failings

Media: A second year of embarrassing incidents prompts questions. Are standards slipping? Or are journalists doing a better job of policing themselves?

September 26, 1999|By David Daley

WHILE 1998 might have been journalism's summer of controversy and plagiarism, the summer of 1999 was almost a carbon copy.

This time last year, Mike Barnicle was being forced from his columnist's perch at the Boston Globe over allegations that he manufactured characters in his columns, shortly after Patricia Smith's departure for similar reasons. The New Republic was reeling from revelations that Stephen Glass simply made up large parts of his political columns, and Rolling Stone, George and Harper's were also forced to admit they could not vouch for large portions of Glass' stories that they published, including high-profile articles on Vernon Jordan and the effectiveness of the anti-drug program DARE.

Then CNN retracted its Operation Tailwind story, which reported that the United States used deadly nerve gas on defectors during the Vietnam War, and apologized to the Pentagon. The Cincinnati Enquirer not only apologized to Chiquita Banana, but it also agreed to pay $10 million in damages after a series that suggested Chiquita's use of pesticide products in Latin America harmed workers and residents and was revealed to be based in part on illegally obtained company voice-mail messages.

This summer saw a similar range of incidents:

The Indianapolis Star suspended TV columnist Steve Hall for three weeks for borrowing parts of another writer's column and reassigned him to another beat. Hall apologized to readers for his "stupid mistake." Then, when editors found additional cases of plagiarism in Hall's earlier stories, they fired him.

The Arizona Republic, after hiring a private investigator to research whether columnist Julie Amparano's sources existed, fired her when it could not find many of the people she quoted in her pieces. Amparano denied the allegations that she made up the quotes and said the paper didn't give her enough time to find the sources herself. Yet it doesn't look good for her when repeated quotes are from one name -- a "Jennifer Morgan," described as having several different occupations -- or when one of the numbers she gave to her editor, saying it belonged to an interview subject whose identity could not be verified, turned out to be that of a relative.

Insider stock trading has caused trouble for two journalists. ABC's Nancy Snyderman, who also helps run DrKoop.com, had to return a sizable profit she made when that medical site went public. A San Jose Mercury News business writer also lost her column amid conflict-of-interest allegations arising from money she made trading technology stocks.

And the story that has inexplicably attracted the least national attention: Author and Fox News Channel commentator Monica Crowley wrote an op-ed column for the Wall Street Journal on her mentor, Richard Nixon, that some have suggested bears a close resemblance to an article Paul Johnson wrote on the Nixon legacy for Commentary magazine more than a decade ago.

Crowley has denied any plagiarism and says she doesn't remember reading Johnson's piece. But the Journal saw fit to run an editor's note that said, "There are striking similarities in phraseology" between Crowley's and Johnson's articles, and "Had we known of the parallels, we would not have published the article."

How similar is the phrasing? Slate's Timothy Noah, who has bird-dogged Crowley closer than anyone in recent weeks, notes five extremely close parallels in his Chatterbox column (available in the archives at www.slate.com). Noah's most damaging evidence:

Johnson wrote, "So great was the inequity of Nixon's downfall that future historians may well conclude he would have been justified in allowing events to take their course and in subjecting the nation to the prolonged paralysis of a public impeachment, which at least would have given him the opportunity to defend himself by due process of law. But once again his patriotism took precedence over his self-interest ..."

Crowley wrote, "Given the inequity of Nixon's downfall, historians may yet determine that he would have been justified in allowing events to take their course and subjecting the country to a prolonged process of impeachment, which would have given him the chance to defend himself by due process of law. His allegiance to the country, however, overrode his political self-interest."

As Noah concludes, "It isn't possible that Crowley never read Johnson's piece."

Why would Crowley -- whose "Nixon in Winter" earned good reviews -- take that kind of risk? Why would Amparano, given the allegations against her, pull a Barnicle after the national embarrassment that the two Globe columnists experienced? Have ethical standards slipped so far that these are going to be regular occurrences, further harming the collective reputation of the beast called the media?

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