Insinuations

In her “reader’s representative” column this morning, Kate Parry discusses the internal Star Tribune investigation of a second incident of possible editorial copying of Hendrik Hertzberg’s New Yorker commentaries. Earlier this morning I wrote an inspired analysis of the threads of Parry’s column. Unfortunately, it disappeared when I hit the publish button and I don’t have the heart to recreate it. The following is in the nature of notes and comments on Parry’s column.

The first time around — in the column to which we linked in “Can a writer accidentally subcontract” — Parry graciously credited Power Line by name and noted that we have an occasionally adversarial relationsihp with the Star Tribune. Parry was also quite critical of Susan Albright’s decision not identify the plagiarist on the editorial board so that further examination of his work could take place. This time around Power Line drops out of the picture, at least by name, and Parry stands on guard against “talk radio and blog commentators eager to win over newspaper readers and the advertising dollars that follow them” by “exploiting accusations of unethical behavior by journalists.” Uh oh.

Is Parry’s “insinuation” (as I’ll call it for reasons that will become clear below) warranted? After Parry’s column ran, our former law partner Norm Carpenter received a telephone call from Star Tribune/New Yorker reader Dave Valen. Valen told Norm that last spring he had shared an experience similar to Norm’s discovery of the Hertzberg echo in the Star Tribune last month. Valen told Norm that 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.

On November 22, I called Star Tribune publisher Keith Moyer and left a message advising him that we would be reporting a second, similar incident of copying from Hertzberg that had in fact been reported earlier to the Star Tribune. He forwarded my message to Susan Albright, who called me back. I identified the Hertzberg commentary, the Star Tribune editorial and asked for a comment. She said she would take a look and call me back. Later that day she called me back and advised me that she had undertaken an investigation.

Here is how Parry sets up the current Star Tribune internal investigation:

[T]he revelation of a second editorial with similarities to a Hertzberg piece that was written by the same editorial writer has significantly heightened the newspaper’s response. On Thursday, Albright published a note disclosing the editorials were the work of editorial writer Steve Berg, who will not be writing until a review of his previous editorials is completed. Berg said he wasn’t able to comment because of the review underway.

Similarities between a Berg editorial on March 27 and a Hertzberg piece that ran in the March 6 New Yorker magazine provoked that review. Both pieces argued for Electoral College reform and some of the similarities are in how the argument is framed. Albright said both pieces seemed to draw on language in reports by advocacy groups for Electoral College reform that has insinuated itself into public discussion on the topic. Phrases such as “a more perfect union” and “spectator states” appeared in both pieces, but also in other commentaries.

“The Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution itself,” Hertzberg wrote. Berg wrote “given the Constitution’s enshrinement of the Electoral College.” Not close enough to prompt a review on its own, the March editorial still contained enough similarity to provoke the probe of Berg’s other writing in light of the similarities in the November editorial.

(Emphasis added.) Is Parry circling the wagons here? Her assertion that the similiarities between the Hertzberg commentary and the March editoral are “[n]ot close enough to prompt a review on its own” sounds like an oblique justification of the Star Tribune’s having blown off Valen when he raised the question with Albright on March 28. As for the current issue, Parry relates Albright’s reference to “language in reports by advocacy groups for Electoral College reform that has insinuated itself into public discussion on the topic.” Such “insinuation” must have a life of its own.

The March editorial seems clearly to have been written with Hertzberg’s related New Yorker commentary before the writer. The editorial reads in substantial part like a paraphrase without attribution of Hertzberg’s commentary. I learned as a high school student that such reliance required attribution. Does the Star Tribune lack applicable norms? It apparently does, given Parry’s reference to the paper’s need for “clear guidelines on sound practices for compiling and attributing information.”

Parry’s treatment of another case suggests that the need is urgent:

Recently a critic at another newspaper suggested a Star Tribune critic copied phrases from a review he had written. The two reviews were sprinkled with similar phrases and quotes. But when Gillespie, who is continuing to look into it, fed those phrases into a Google search along with the title of the work, it became clear those phrases had worked their way into reviews by numerous critics at other newspapers. Strange as that situation is, it doesn’t appear to be plagiarism.

I guess it’s just another case of language “insinuating itself into public discussion.”

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