We reported that the Minneapolis Star Tribune had plagiarized one of its editorials from a New Yorker commentary by Hendrik Hertzberg in “The Star Tribune digs Hendrik Hertzberg” and noted the credulous conclusion of Star Tribune editorial page editor Susan Albright that the plagiarism was accidental in “A failure of a different order.” Even Star Tribune reader’s representative Kate Parry found that conclusion a bit difficult to swallow. As we noted in our original post and as Parry noted in her column, our former law partner Norm Carpenter had brought the plagiarism to our attention.
After Parry’s column ran, Norm received a telephone call from Star Tribune/New Yorke reader Dave Valen. Valen told Norm that he had shared a similar experience last spring. He had found a Star Tribune editorial cribbed from a Hendrik Hertzberg New Yorker commentary. He told Norm that he called Kate Parry, left a voicemail message regarding his observation and subsequently received a phone call from Star Tribune editorial page editor Susan Albright. Valen gave Albright the information and appears to have been blown off by her.
Norm forwarded Valen’s phone number to me and I gave him a call. Valen told me that he had thrown away the Hertzberg piece and the related Star Tribune editorial. The incident happened long enough ago that he could not even recall the subject. I pressed him on the subject; he vaguely recalled that it involved a government reform. Taking a look through Hertzberg’s New Yorker commentary pieces this year, I quickly found “Count ‘em,” on the circumvention of the electoral college. I called my day job colleague Peter Swanson of Swanblog at home and asked him to search Star Tribune editorials with the word “electoral college.” In about five seconds Peter found this March 27 Star Tribune editorial headed “How to drop out of the electoral college”:
This country could form a more perfect union by accepting a novel idea: that the president of the United States should be elected by the people of the United States.
That’s not the way it’s done, of course, and, given the Constitution’s enshrinement of the Electoral College, things aren’t likely to change. To quit the college would take approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of state legislatures, so fuggedaboudit.
But now comes a gaggle of bipartisan reformers with a cheeky idea worth considering. What if legislatures, one by one, entered their states into an interstate compact under which members would agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote? The compact would kick in only when enough states had joined it to elect a president – that is, when a majority of the 538 electoral votes were assembled. As few as 11 states could ensure that the candidate with the most popular votes nationally would win the presidency. As a result, the Constitution and the Electoral College would stay intact, but the college’s fangs would be removed.
That approach would be more democratic than current practice. Recall that Al Gore lost the 2000 election to George W. Bush despite getting a half-million more popular votes, and that Bush nearly lost the 2004 election despite getting 3 million more popular votes (a shift of only 60,000 votes in Ohio would have thrown the election to John Kerry). So, both parties have reason to fear the college’s distortions.
That the Electoral College has “worked” in all but one election since 1888 isn’t a good enough reason to stay with the status quo. The college has a perverse impact on campaigns. With no incentive to compete in states that are predictably red or blue, candidates concentrate on the battleground states – only 13 of them in 2004, down from 24 in 1960. That’s not the national campaign voters deserve. In the last election, 92 percent of campaign events took place in just 13 states, which also absorbed 97 percent of advertising during the campaign’s final month. Three dozen red and blue states as large as California, New York and Texas and as small as Delaware, Utah and Wyoming were mere spectators.
Now that Minnesota is a battleground getting lots of attention, it’s a lot to ask the Legislature to do the right thing and endorse the new compact. But it really should. So should other states – both red and blue – join, for the sake of a better democracy.
Unlike the incident that we first brought to the attention of the Star Tribune, this editorial appeared to have been cribbed without attribution rather than plagiarized. I thought that if a high school or college student had done it and been caught, that his paper would have received a failing grade and that the student would have received a warning not to do it again.
A week ago yesterday, on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, I called the Star Tribune and left a message that I had found a prior incident of cribbing or copying and ended up speaking with Susan Albright. I identified the Hertzberg piece and the Star Tribune editorial, asked if she recalled the conversation with a reader who had previously discussed them with her, and asked for a comment. She said that she did not recall the conversation, but that she would investigate the incident and call me back that afternoon. Toward the end of the afternoon she called me back and said, given holiday absences of relevant personnel, that she would not be able to complete the investigation that day. She also said that she had checked a log she keeps and found that she had indeed spoken with a Dave Valen on March 28 (I can’t remember if she told me whether her log reflected the subject of the conversation).
On Tuesday I called Albright to ask about the status of her investigation. She was busy, so I emailed her a message stating that I intended to write about the incident on Wednesday evening and asked if she would be able to bring her investigation to a conclusion by that time. She responded:
I’m sorry I missed your call; I was in a meeting about this issue. Now that the relevant people are here, we are dealing directly with the matter.
We are taking this very seriously, and are digging deeply to sort it all out. We feel an obligation to be fair and deliberate about this; it is far too serious a matter to jump to conclusions without a thorough review. We will be looking closely at everything that this writer, who won’t be writing during the process, has produced over the past year. You are right in surmising that this is the same editorial writer who wrote the Nov. 10 editorial.
I appreciate your professionalism and consideration last week given the holiday staffing issues and absences we had.
John Hinderaker and I confered and decided that we would not write about the incident until we could include a comment from Albright. Today’s Star Tribune carries the following editorial note by Albright:
Two weeks ago I wrote in this space about a Nov. 10 editorial that we learned contained, without attribution, phrases from a New Yorker commentary by Hendrik Hertzberg. Since then we have received an inquiry about a March 27 editorial that contained similarities to a March 6 Hertzberg piece.
We want you to know that we are taking this matter very seriously. We have an obligation to everyone involved to be fair and deliberate in evaluating this; it is too serious a matter to jump to any conclusions without a thorough review. Since both of the editorials in question were written by editorial writer Steve Berg, the Star Tribune will conduct a review of his writing over the past year. During this review he will not be writing.
In my editor’s note about the Nov. 10 editorial, I did not name the writer. The subsequent questioning of the earlier piece caused us to rethink that stance, since both were written by the same person and other writers were becoming objects of conjecture.
We strive to be candid about our processes and practices, so when the review is completed, I will be writing about this again.
In all of this I only sought a comment from Albright regarding the apparent cribbing of the Star Tribune’s March 27 editorial from Hertzberg’s New Yorker commentary. No such comment has been forthcoming.
UPDATE: The Associated Press is now following this story, and crediting Power Line.
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