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Rocky Mountain News editor, publisher, and president John Temple announced today that Thom Beal, the paper’s deputy editorial page editor, has resigned. The resignation followed repeated inquiries from 5280 and several local blogs regarding what appeared to be multiple instances of plagiarism in a News editorial published last month.
On Saturday, July 16, the News ran an editorial titled “Joe Wilson’s Howlers,â€? 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, a popular political blog. That reader cited the quote (“It’s impossible to revisit here all of Wilson’s stretches, misstatements, and howlers…â€?), along with the original Howler quote on RockyWatch, a local blog that critiques the Rocky Mountain News.
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When 5280 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. A chart listing the passages in question is available here.
“[The editorial] is certainly strikingly similar and raises questions,â€? 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.â€?
Questions indeed. Such as: How exactly did those sentences end up in the News editorial? Who wrote the piece? Who edited it? Has the writer committed similar offenses in the past? What kind of discipline is being handed out? A reprimand? A suspension? A pink slip?
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 â€˜stretches, misstatements, and howlers’ to The Daily Howler Web site.â€?
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.â€?
When presented with other suspicious passages in the editorial, Carroll said that “[There] seems to be a similarity,â€? 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,â€? said Temple, who then 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 and 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,â€? said Bob Steele, a media ethics professor at the respected Poynter Institute, who compared the texts. “At the least, that’s lazy and unprofessional journalism. It also fits most definitions of plagiarism.â€?
Temple continued to maintain that the then-unnamed News editorial writer did not commit plagiarism. A day after our conversation, Temple posted a 905-word defense of the 255-word editorial on 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,â€? 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.â€?
5280 then 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 on Thursday.
Temple said he would review our findings, and we asked him to get back to us as soon as possible. Finally, after we made repeated attempts to reach him, Temple told us at about 5:30 that he was too busy to talk to us. This morning, Temple published a column announcing Beal’s resignation and apologizing for the incident. He then left us a voicemail in which he said “I think my editor’s note speaks for itself.â€?
Hardly. Temple’s column, and indeed his handling of this entire episode, raise serious questions about how he and the paper respond to violations of our profession’s most basic ethical standards.
“In cases like this, the newspaper should be forthright, and should be transparent in terms of examination of the matter, and barring an exceptional reason, they should name the individual,â€? says Steele. “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.â€?
We’ve put another call in to Temple, and we await his answers to our many questions.