Michael Olesker, a columnist for 27 years at The Sun, resigned yesterday amid allegations that he had used sentences and paragraphs from other newspapers in some of his columns without attribution.
"I made mistakes," said Olesker, clearly dejected, as he began cleaning out his desk in The Sun's newsroom. "I would never take somebody else's work and call it my own. I have always tried to serve my readers as honorably as possible. In the current climate, with so many political eyes staring at me and this newspaper, I feel it's in everyone's best interest for me to resign."
FOR THE RECORD - An article Wednesday about the resignation of columnist Michael Olesker from The Sun misspelled the name of New York Times reporter David Leonhardt.
The Sun regrets the errors.
His departure came two weeks shy of his 30th anniversary as a columnist in Baltimore, a city he chronicled in two books, Michael Olesker's Baltimore and Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore.
The most recent allegations against Olesker came in an e-mail to The Sun yesterday morning from Gadi Dechter, a media reporter at the Baltimore City Paper, an alternative weekly. Dechter and a research assistant, Anne Howard, had pored over Olesker's work published during the past two years or so and discovered several instances in which he had apparently appropriated the work of fellow journalists not only at The Sun but at The New York Times and The Washington Post.
"Clearly, this is a practice that's unacceptable, and we acted quickly to meet with Mike and try to resolve it," said Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin. "It's been excruciatingly painful. Mike has been a prominent voice for the newspaper for many, many years and has contributed much to the public debate, so this has been a very difficult day and a very difficult process."
During the past year, Olesker, 60, has been a lightning rod for attacks over his columns criticizing the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The governor's press office had issued an order in November 2004 banning state executive branch employees from talking to Olesker and Sun reporter David Nitkin, prompting the paper to file a First Amendment lawsuit. The paper lost the first round in federal court, and a decision on an appeal is pending.
Dechter's quest had been prompted by a 146-word correction in The Sun on Dec. 24 in which the paper acknowledged that a three-sentence paragraph from a Dec. 12 column by Olesker about former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland was almost identical to several lines in a 2003 profile of the senator by Peter Carlson of The Post. The correction explained that Olesker had made notes from Carlson's piece as part of his research for an interview with Cleland, but that he did not look at the notes again for 20 months. When he did, he mistook the notes for his own work, the correction said.
Franklin said he then asked the paper's public editor, Paul Moore, to conduct a thorough review of Olesker's work in recent years to determine whether any other such instances cropped up. But Moore was on vacation over the Christmas holidays and did not begin the task until this past weekend.
"It's important for the readers to have a full accounting of whether there are other instances in which Mike's words were not his own and were not attributed to other news organizations," Franklin said. Combined with the earlier correction, the latest allegations "represent a pattern that is troubling, and we can't and don't condone taking work from other news organizations without attribution."
In addition, City Editor Howard Libit was asked to begin his own review of Olesker's work, but Dechter, at the City Paper, was further along.
"In a cursory review of Olesker's recent columns, we found several more instances of unusual similarity between his language and that of previously published news stories," Dechter wrote in his e-mail to Libit yesterday.
He gave some examples. In one, Dechter pointed to Olesker's March 1 column, in which he wrote: "The state has been sued at least six times since Ehrlich took office by workers who alleged they were fired for their political affiliation. That is against the law."
Less than two weeks earlier, on Feb. 19, Washington Post reporters Matthew Mosk and Lena Sun had written: "The state has been sued at least six times since Ehrlich took office by workers who alleged they were fired for no reason other than their political affiliation, which is illegal."
On Aug. 27, 2004, David Leonhard wrote in The Times: "But the disparity in incomes between the rich and poor grew after having fallen in 2002. Pay did not keep pace with inflation in the South, already the nation's poorest region, in cities, or among immigrants. And the wage gap between men and women widened for the first time in four years."
Almost two months later, Olesker wrote: "The disparity in incomes widened between the rich and the poor. Pay did not keep pace with inflation in the cities, among immigrants, or in the South, already the nation's poorest region. And the wage gap between men and women widened."