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."
Temple maintained that the unnamed News editorial writer did not commit plagiarism. A day after our conversation, Temple posted a 905-word defense of the 255-word editorial in his Rocky Mountain News blog. "In this business, when I hear from other local news organizations wanting to ask me questions it's usually because they think they've got something on the Rocky Mountain News," he wrote.
After addressing the initial suspicious passages, Temple continued, "...the similarities were inadvertent...we don't condone either the sentence we corrected or the similar construction of the other phrase, and...[we have] taken appropriate action with regard to the person who wrote the editorial."
Even so, when 5280 discovered that an additional passage in the News editorial was nearly a word-for-word match of a Washington Post article referenced in the original Howler item, and sought further comment from Temple, he asked for time to look into the additional item and said he'd get back to us.
The next morning, without responding to 5280, Temple ran an editor's note on page 2, stating, "An editorial on July 16, 'Joe Wilson's Howlers,' inappropriately duplicated wording from a Washington Post article." Temple also finally named the author of the editorial-deputy editorial page editor Thom Beal-who immediately resigned.
Several hours later, Temple left a 5280 editor a voicemail, saying, "I think my editor's note speaks for itself."
When later asked why the News failed to find the lifted Washington Post passages, Temple said he had done an investigation, but had not found those passages. He said that he used "journalistic techniques...using the Internet and other devices to see whether we could find similarities." When asked for further information about what type of searches he had done, Temple refused to answer, saying, "Look, I don't want to go through the entire search of what we did."
When asked if the News would be conducting an audit of Beal's previous work (over 20 signed editorials and an unknown number of unsigned ones over the previous two years), Temple said that he had already done his own investigation and he's "not aware of anything else that needs correcting."
Given that Temple's investigation failed to uncover the passages lifted from The Washington Post, even though the Post article is quoted in the Daily Howler item, it's hard to have much confidence in his audit of Beal's work.
Other publications, like The New York Times and The New Republic, launched extensive, public investigations after discredited writers were found to have fabricated sources. The Detroit Free Press reviewed more than 600 columns by Mitch Albom, following the news that Albom had "misled readers by writing about events that never occurred at a basketball game." Temple, on the other hand, won't hire anyone from outside the News to check into Beal's work, let alone tell his readers about his own "internal investigation."
"I've done an internal investigation and examined the work and have not found anything that needs correcting. And I've also made clear that if I do, I will correct it. And that's my position," he said. "You can argue with me, but I'm not having an argument with you. You're not running the newspaper."
"In cases like this, the newspaper should be forthright, and should be transparent in terms of examination of the matter," says Steele, the Poynter media ethics professor. "I always urge editors and publishers who've had something go wrong to be as forthright and open as possible about what they've learned about what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what they plan to do about it."
Temple isn't afraid to call for other newspapers to hold themselves accountable. In 2003, following the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times, Temple criticized the Times executives in his weekly column. "We journalists routinely place responsibility on leaders of organizations for the mistakes of individuals who work for them," wrote Temple. "Regrettably, the Times' response to the case of rogue reporter Jayson Blair makes it seem we're not willing to take our own medicine."
At a time when the public's faith in the media is at its lowest, and newspaper sales are sagging, Temple's handling of this episode raises serious questions about how he and the News respond to violations of journalism's most basic ethical standards. If Temple values the News' credibility, maybe it's time he took a dose of his own medicine: responsibility, transparency, and accountability.