The story line seems all too familiar: another Boston Globe
columnist punished for borrowing someone else's work.
But this time the offender is an unabashed conservative on a
famously liberal op-ed page, and the penalty so harsh -- for what many Globe staffers see as a minor infraction -- that some
rushed yesterday to defend a man with whom they rarely agree.
"What is happening now is a nightmare," Jeff Jacoby wrote
friends after being suspended for four months without pay, sidelining him until after the election. "In accusing me of
'serious journalistic misconduct,' the Globe is poisoning the good name I have spent many years
building up. This suspension is a brutal overreaction to something that even the Globe will
not call plagiarism and doesn't characterize as a willful violation."
In his July 3 column, Jacoby wrote about what became of the
signers of the Declaration of Independence -- an old theme that has been explored by Paul Harvey, Rush Limbaugh and
others, as Jacoby readily acknowledged when he e-mailed an advance copy of
the column to some friends and fans. Jacoby says he checked books, encyclopedias and Web sites in
researching his version, which bore some similarity to the earlier pieces.
But for a newspaper that was traumatized by the banishment
of columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith in 1998, this was over the line. In a statement and subsequent news story on
the suspension, the Globe said it found the column was based on accounts that have
appeared "in other publications and books and on Web sites for years" and "failed to alert
readers to those other sources." Jacoby says his bosses told him there would have to be a
"serious rethink" of his column if he returned after four months -- in other words, says Jacoby,
he was "effectively invited to resign."
Renee Loth, who became editorial page editor two months ago,
says that "this had absolutely nothing to do with ideology. I'd have been happy to have Jeff on my page as a courageous
conservative voice. The fact that I'm more liberal than my predecessor is really not a factor
here, even if that's true."
Loth also says the ouster of Barnicle and Smith had no
effect on Jacoby's fate. "To the extent that it was possible, I looked at this in isolation.... We came up with a response
that's proportionate and fair."
Many staffers strongly disagree. "It strikes me as a terrible overreaction," says Globe business
columnist Charles Stein. "The guy made a mistake. He wasn't trying to put
anything over on anybody. It's very different from the other incidents the Globe has been involved in, where
people were making stuff up. Maybe a reprimand and a week's suspension would have been
Steve Bailey, the Globe's "Downtown" columnist, calls the
suspension "way over the top. The guy's opinions were never welcomed in this building from day one. One mistake and he's
gone. It's hard to imagine there wasn't some connection [with his conservative views]. The
guy has created a lot of enemies over the years. I didn't agree with his point of view all the
time, but I admired his work."
Friday's suspension of the six-year veteran has quickly
become a cause celebre. Conservative columnist Matt Drudge registered a protest by dropping all Globe links from his Web
site. National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg (who had apologized for writing a similar
Declaration column) urged people to call or fax the Globe to complain, as did Jewish
World Review. Writer David Horowitz accused the Globe of "reckless cruelty" in
FrontPageMag.com, and the Wall Street Journal is planning a critical column.
Says John Fund, a Journal editorial board member who first
published Jacoby's writing a dozen years ago: "It's an open secret that Jacoby was viewed at best with sneering
indifference and at worst with contempt and hostility in the newsroom." He calls Jacoby's
mistake a "misdemeanor."
Jacoby has been something of a lightning rod. In 1997, when
he criticized Harvard activists who tried to block a discussion by a Christian group that believes homosexuality is sinful, two
gay copy editors complained, and the Globe's ombudsman--who had castigated Jacoby for
"homophobic" columns--called the piece "offensive."
The Globe was badly shaken by the departures of Smith, a
prominent black columnist, and star columnist Barnicle, who is white. Smith acknowledged fabricating characters in several
columns. Barnicle, who was initially suspended for recycling jokes without attribution, was
fired for shoddy reporting after editors could not confirm the existence of two cancer-stricken
boys he wrote about.
But while those episodes sparked a racially tinged debate,
Jacoby's case has galvanized those who say the paper lacks political diversity.
"What Jacoby did was stupid, and he's admitted that," says
Dan Kennedy, media critic for the Boston Phoenix. "But when you're going to destroy a man's career and reputation, you have
to look at intent. Clearly, he didn't intend to deceive anyone. There are people over there
who absolutely loathe him.... Jacoby is so far out of the mainstream there that it makes this
easier to do."
Loth says incredulously there have even been whispers of
antisemitism against a Jewish columnist, although she is Jewish herself. She says she weighed Jacoby's "intent" on the
column, but that his unusual practice of e-mailing advance copies to 100 friends was also a
"Four months is a long enough time that he may feel he wants
to find another job," Loth says. "That's certainly his right. He can still come back."
The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, July 11, 2000
Recycling Shouldn't Be a Crime
By James Taranto, deputy features editor of the Journal's
Journalists often preach about the need for high ethical
standards. But punishing someone excessively for a trivial offense is no more ethical than looking the other way at
serious wrongdoing. That's a lesson the Boston Globe's editors need to learn.
On July 3 the Globe published a column by Jeff Jacoby, in
which he described the fate of some of the lesser-known signers of the Declaration of Independence. Mr. Jacoby later
explained in an e-mail that he had based his column on three similar essays -- one by Paul
Harvey, one by Rush Limbaugh and one that has been making the rounds on the Internet. He
rewrote these essays, consulting reference works and Web sites to correct
Three days later the Globe published an "editor's note"
acknowledging that "aspects" of the column had "appeared in a widely circulated e-mail message and on the Internet" and
criticizing Mr. Jacoby for failing to disclose this. Then, on Friday, the Globe suspended Mr.
Jacoby for four months without pay and accused him of "serious journalistic misconduct."
The Globe's editors acknowledge that Mr. Jacoby didn't
commit plagiarism, an offense that consists in appropriating someone else's words. So what exactly was his crime? The
editor's note declared that "Jacoby should have alerted readers that the concept and structure for
his column were not entirely original."
Indeed, he should have. It's always best to err on the side
of disclosure, and the column would have been more interesting and timely if Mr. Jacoby had made clear that he was
correcting errors in an e-mail posting that many of his readers had no doubt seen. (He did
spell this out to his friends when he e-mailed them a prepublication copy of the column.)
But does such an error of judgment really amount to "serious
journalistic misconduct"? Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's well-respected media reporter, doesn't think so. "I
considered this a minor matter and wasn't planning on writing a word about
it until the Globe hit Jacoby with the four-month suspension," he told me yesterday.
Do the Globe's editors really expect their writers to "alert
readers" every time they avail themselves of a "concept" that is "not entirely original"? If so, they are setting up an
impossible standard. Very few concepts are entirely original. (Surely I'm not the first to point this out.)
To take a random example, The New York Times, whose parent company owns the
Globe, is publishing a long series of ponderous articles on "How Race Is Lived in America." Was this
an original idea? No, but it wasn't until the 10th installment that the Times
"alerted readers" that the Akron Beacon Journal ran a similar series that won it a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 -- and
the Times did so only in the context of an article about race relations in the Beacon Journal
Granted, the Times series doesn't rely directly on previously published work, as Mr. Jacoby's
July 3 column did. But even rewriting the work of others is nothing out of the
ordinary. My first journalistic experience was a 1986 summer internship at the Los Angeles bureau of
United Press International. One of my duties was to walk down the street to
the L.A. Times every night at 8:30 and pick up a few early copies of the next day's paper. I'd take the papers
back to the bureau, where an editor would pick out an article or two for me
to rewrite -- sometimes with attribution, sometimes without.
The following year I had an internship at KNX, a CBS-owned
news radio station in Los Angeles, where I wrote scripts for anchors to read on the air. Sometimes I did original
reporting, but mostly I rewrote wire copy, some of which the wire services
doubtless had rewritten from newspapers. The anchors never alerted listeners that the stories they were
reading weren't entirely original.
Journalists routinely recycle enough to make any environmentalist proud. So why is the Globe
charging Mr. Jacoby with the journalistic equivalent of a felony?
The paper has an embarrassing recent history of ethical
lapses. In June 1998 it forced columnist Patricia Smith to resign after she acknowledged fabricating characters and quotes
in four columns. Two months later the Globe asked veteran columnist Mike Barnicle to resign
after he used unattributed jokes from a book by comedian George Carlin. When Mr. Barnicle
refused to quit, the paper instead suspended him for a month. Two weeks later he was forced
to resign when he couldn't substantiate a story from a 1995 column. (Mr. Barnicle denied
fabricating the story and said he had not read Mr. Carlin's books but was repeating jokes he
had heard from friends.)
Because Ms. Smith is black and Mr. Barnicle is white, the
Globe's hesitation to fire him prompted some readers and black leaders to charge the paper with racial bias. Even the
Globe's ombudsman acknowledged a "double standard." It's hard to believe that race was the
deciding factor; more likely, the Globe was comparatively lenient with Mr. Barnicle because
he was more senior and more popular than Ms. Smith.
Mr. Jacoby happens to be the Globe's only conservative
columnist, and some conservatives now accuse the paper of singling him out on ideological grounds. Whether or not this
charge is true, the Globe's editors have failed to distinguish between an error and a crime.
It's reminiscent of the 1996 case in which an Ohio junior
high school suspended a 13-year-old girl for possessing Midol, an over-the-counter medicine for menstrual cramps, in
violation of the school's "zero tolerance" antidrug policy.
Kids who bring medicine to school don't deserve to be
treated like crack users, and Mr. Jacoby doesn't deserve to be treated like a plagiarist or a fabricator.