Ordeal of the Star Tribune

Star Tribune editor Rene Sanchez and managing editor Suki Dardarian have posted a statement announcing the firing of movie critic Colin Covert for plagiarism. Their statement is posted under the heading “From the Editors: Star Tribune film critic resigns after ethics breach.”

Covert is a 30-year employee of the Star Tribune. Over a period of years Covert plagiarized phrases from reviews by others including the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. Kael was a particular favorite. The Star Tribune editors’ statement does not give us any idea how many such acts of plagiarism it found Covert guilty of or why it found firing to be the appropriate level of discipline in this case. The statement quotes Covert acknowledging “too many mistakes” and expressing contrition for compromising “the Star Tribune’s meticulous reputation for integrity.”

The applicable rule from the Star Tribune policies and standards provides that plagiarism is not permitted. It is a serious offense. Covert’s case is nevertheless peculiar. He didn’t rip off whole paragraphs or sentences, he ripped off phrases. In the universe of plagiarism, the act by itself might be a misdemeanor form of theft. Cumulatively, the thefts might amount to a felony. That appears to be how the the editors assess Covert’s case, but they don’t articulate their reasoning.

Reading the editors’ statement, I hear the clock striking 13. I can’t say it’s funny, but it’s jarring.

The Star Tribune’s coverage of local candidates running for high office office in its own back yard — I am thinking of Fifth District congressional candidates and the candidates for Minnesota Attorney General — utterly failed the basic journalistic function of informing readers. See my correspondence with Rene Sanchez to this effect in the post “In which I write the Star Tribune.”

In the larger context, the editors seem to me to find a mote in Covert’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own eye. If termination is the punishment that fits Covert’s offenses, the Star Tribune ought to close up shop today.

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