Atmosphere

Atmosphere-Between the Rocky and a Hard Place

Publisher John Temple believes in accountability—except when he doesn't.

September 2005

The Rocky Mountain News is not a newspaper that pulls its punches. Whether calling for Ward Churchill's dismissal for academic fraud and plagiarism, or denouncing The New York Times for mishandling a writer who fabricated sources, the News prides itself on holding others accountable when they misstep.

Which makes its handling of a recent incident all the more troubling.

On Saturday, July 16, the News ran an editorial titled "Joe Wilson's howlers," blasting the former ambassador and questioning his credibility. Within hours of the paper hitting the newsstands, an eagle-eyed reader noticed that one line in the editorial had appeared-nearly verbatim-three days earlier on The Daily Howler (dailyhowler.com), a popular political blog. That reader cited the quote ("It's impossible to revisit here all of Wilson's stretches, misstatements, and howlers..."), along with the original Howler quote on RockyWatch (rockywatch.typepad.com), a local blog that critiques the Rocky Mountain News.

When we compared the two texts, we found more suspicious sentences. In fact, it appears that two sentences of the 10-sentence News editorial are disturbingly similar to material found in the Daily Howler blog item, and what's more, another two sentences are almost identical to ones in a Washington Post article quoted by the Howler.

"[The editorial] is certainly strikingly similar and raises questions," says Mindy Trossman, a media ethics professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. "When you put it all together, there's an appearance that the [author of the News editorial] read the blog, if not took from it."

We initially contacted Vincent Carroll, the paper's editorial page editor, who was aware of the first problem sentence and told us that a correction had already been published. It ran on July 21 and read:

"An editorial on page 14C Saturday should have attributed a phrase describing former ambassador Joe Wilson's 'stretches, misstatements, and howlers' to The Daily Howler Web site."

Carroll told us, "[The quote] should have been attributed. It wasn't. And we don't approve of that. We don't approve of the taking of sentences from other publications without attribution. That's why we wrote a correction."

When presented with other suspicious passages in the editorial, Carroll said that "[There] seems to be a similarity," and promised to investigate and get back to us. Instead, we heard from John Temple, the paper's editor and publisher, who took a harder line.

"...We believe that what happened in this case was inadvertent," said Temple, who spoke to us on a speakerphone, along with Carroll. Temple refused to name the writer, discuss whether an audit of that writer's work was being done, or say what kind of disciplinary action had been taken. He repeated that the paper had run a correction, implying that he considered the matter closed.

Leading journalism experts found Temple's answers to be unresponsive. "When you have so many words and phrases in a relatively short editorial that are the same as or very similar to another source, it seems clear that the second writer used the work of someone else and failed to acknowledge that with any form of attribution and credit to the original source," says Bob Steele, a media ethics professor at the Poynter Institute journalism school, who compared the texts. "At the least, that's lazy and unprofessional journalism. It also fits most definitions of plagiarism."

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