Last week, Sun columnist Michael Olesker resigned, ending a 27-year career at the newspaper after being confronted with evidence that he had used material from other newspapers without attribution.
Olesker is a gifted writer and a passionate advocate, with many friends within the paper and across the Baltimore region. He is also a controversial figure with powerful enemies, including the governor of Maryland and his administration.
His sudden departure has prompted a stormy response in the community, with critics taunting the paper, saying it proves their claims of his and The Sun's bias, and with others claiming that The Sun has knuckled under to political pressure.
But in fact, Olesker is gone because of the pattern of evidence that he had violated a basic principle of journalistic ethics - in some columns, he copied the work of others without attribution.
Olesker acknowledged his responsibility in an interview with Sun reporter Nick Madigan for an article Wednesday reporting his resignation:
"I am sorry to say that in the course of doing those columns I unintentionally screwed up a handful of paragraphs. I am embarrassed by my sloppiness."
Inside The Sun newsroom, the pain of Olesker's departure has been mixed with sober reflection and sometimes passionate discussion of journalistic responsibilities at a time when newspapers and other media are bombarded with criticism for widely reported ethical lapses and mistakes.
It has not been uncommon for journalists to borrow facts and other material in the public domain from stories that previously appeared in their paper. But this practice has definite limits. Whenever possible, Sun writers are expected to do their own reporting, and when material is borrowed it is expected to be credited to the source.
Now, more than ever, bloggers and other media critics are holding The Sun and other media to that standard.
The chain of events leading to Olesker's resignation began with a Dec. 24 correction of a Dec. 12 column, in which he described a scene from former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland's life in almost the identical language used in a 2003 Washington Post article.
After an inquiry, Sun editors determined that Olesker's error was not plagiarism but his failure to attribute the material to the Post. The correction explained that Olesker had mistakenly used the Post quote, which he had recorded in his notebook and had mixed up with notes of his own.
The Sun had just begun a broader review of Olesker's recent work when Gadi Dechter, a reporter for the City Paper who was preparing an article about circumstances surrounding the Cleland correction, presented Sun editors with several other examples of passages in recent columns that were similar or virtually identical to sentences and passages in the Post and The New York Times. This was an issue of attribution, not inaccuracy.
The Sun independently confirmed the City Paper's findings. The newspaper's internal investigation is continuing.
The combination of these instances showed that even though most of the material in question was basic background information, Olesker broke the cardinal rule found in The Sun's ethics code: "When we use facts gathered by other news organizations, we attribute them. ... Staff members must not use anyone else's work and present it as theirs."
Sun editors discussed the situation with Olesker, and he resigned a few hours later.
When the news of Olesker's departure broke, a number of readers wrote or called to say they believed the columnist resigned because of political pressure.
"I believe this had more do with pressure from the Ehrlich administration than it has to do with plagiarism," Denise Baker said. "Is the Sun selling out to the political right?"
Glenford Hynson said: "Ehrlich and his cronies have caused someone far more important to Baltimore and Maryland to resign and step out of the picture."
But in fact, The Sun has stood firmly behind the columnist since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration banned executive employees from talking to Olesker and reporter David Nitkin in November 2004 over claims of unfair and inaccurate reporting.
As public editor, I examined the administration's list of grievances, responded in print and online to each, and recommended corrections and clarifications. I ultimately concluded, however, that the charges of gross inaccuracies were unfounded.
The Sun also filed a First Amendment lawsuit seeking to have the ban lifted. The newspaper has lost the first round in federal court. Its appeal is pending.
Olesker's case clearly is not in the same realm as those of Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, the former reporters for, respectively, The New York Times and USA Today who falsified locations, made up people and concocted quotes.
But a pattern of "sloppiness," or in this case a pattern of recklessness, is not defensible.
Dechter's article Wednesday represented the kind of reporting that the alternative press stars at: scrutinizing the larger media organizations.