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Media Circus

Sincere Flattery?

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 1/4/2006

On Christmas Day, Sun public editor Paul Moore devoted his weekly column to a wrap-up of the newspaper’s published corrections in 2005. In the column, titled “We regret the errors—some more than others,” Moore noted that most of the 500 to 600 corrections the daily published last year were simple factual mistakes or editing errors.

Ironically, the Sun’s perhaps most serious correction of the year ran a day earlier, on Dec. 24, too recent to be included in Moore’s account. In a 146-word correction, the paper disclosed that a three-sentence paragraph from veteran political commentator Michael Olesker’s Dec. 12 column appeared remarkably similar to a paragraph in a 2003 Washington Post profile of former U.S. senator Max Cleland.

On July 3 of that year, Post features writer Peter Carlson wrote, “On one of his first trips out of the hospital, an old girlfriend pushed him around Washington in his wheelchair. Outside the White House, the chair hit a curb and Cleland pitched forward and fell out. He remembers flopping around helplessly in the dirt and cigarette butts in the gutter.”

Olesker’s Dec. 12 version of the anecdote reads, “On one of his first trips out, an old girlfriend pushed his wheelchair around Washington. Near the White House, the wheelchair hit a curb. Cleland pitched forward and fell out, flopping around in dirt and cigarette butts in a gutter.”

The Sun’s correction described Olesker’s mistake as a failure of attribution, not plagiarism, explaining that Olesker had recorded Carlson’s description in a notebook, in preparation for an April 2004 interview with Cleland. When he returned to the notebook 20 months later, according to the correction, Olesker mistook his close paraphrase of the Post paragraph as his own interview notes.

Reached at his home last week, Olesker referred all questions to his editor, saying, “I would love to [talk], but they asked me to refer everything to [city editor] Howard Libit.”

“It really was a mistake,” Libit says. “A panel of editors got together and talked about it with Mike [Olesker], and he retrieved the notebook and we looked at it, and it truly was a mistake and inadvertent.”

The similarity between Olesker’s language to that in the 2003 Post story was first pointed out by Kevin Dayhoff in a Dec. 21 essay in the Frederick County-based political commentary web site TheTentacle.com.

Dayhoff, 52, is a retired nursery stock farmer and former mayor of Westminster. He says the language in Olesker’s column “rang a bell” after he read it in preparation for his own column discussing Cleland, which is in part a conservative response to the liberal Olesker’s column. Dayhoff says he was so troubled by the similarity in language that he awoke in the middle of the night and examined his online research file, which also contained Carlson’s 2003 piece.

Dayhoff says he considered contacting Olesker about the similarly worded passage, but decided against it, he says, because, “I didn’t want to subject myself to [the Sun’s] condescending, arrogant attitude.

“I feel badly about that,” Dayhoff adds, “because [media] accountability begins with peer supervision.”

Two days later, on Thursday, Dec. 22, the Gazette papers political reporter Douglas Tallman was perusing TheTentacle.com site, as he does periodically, when he came across Dayhoff’s column. It was Tallman who first notified The Sun about Dayhoff’s claims about Olesker. “I e-mailed Howard [Libit],” Tallman says. “And Howard took it very seriously.”

That night, Libit says, Olesker was summoned to a meeting at the daily’s Calvert Street headquarters that included top editor Tim Franklin, managing editor Robert Blau, deputy managing editor for news Sandy Banisky, and Libit. After satisfying themselves that Olesker’s near-copy of Carlson’s language was accidental, the committee of editors drafted the correction, which ran on Saturday, Dec. 24. The correction does not use the word “plagiarism” to describe Olesker’s mistake, Libit says, because “this wasn’t a case where [Olesker] was trying to take a shortcut or was intentionally copying from another source. This was a case where 20 months later his notes were unclear.” When asked whether the newspaper is taking disciplinary action, Libit says, “I can’t talk about that,” but adds that Olesker’s column will continue to run as usual.

The Sun’s response was appropriate if this is an isolated incident, says Roy Peter Clark, a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute and author of an essay about plagiarism titled “The Unoriginal Sin.” “I think I might do exactly what these editors did,” Clark says, after pointing out that he has done consulting work for The Sun in recent years. “Which is just attribute it to a case of sloppy work habits and be transparent about what you’ve discovered. From my point of view, no other discipline would be necessary in this case, because it’s pretty embarrassing and pretty humbling to have even this correction coming out in relation to your work.”

Peter Carlson, the author of the Post story, jokes that he’s complimented, not offended, by Olesker’s actions. “Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery,” he says. “To hell with imitation.”

A media columnist himself, Carlson says that media self-scrutiny has reached the point of overkill. “We’re eating our own these days, and it’s just getting a little ridiculous,” he says. “Michael Olesker is perfectly capable of writing a perfectly good column without stealing language from me. So he made a mistake. I don’t think it’s a big deal.

“He’s never done this before, right?”

When asked whether The Sun was planning to look into precisely that question, Libit said last week, “Mike’s been a columnist in Baltimore for almost 30 years. This kind of thing has never been raised by any of his columns ever. He’s done a lot of great work over the years, and I expect he’ll continue to do a lot of great work. So, no.”

But a cursory review of Olesker’s recent columns suggests that a more rigorous analysis might not be a bad idea. Consider the following selected examples of similar phrases that first appear in published news stories (mostly from his own newspaper), and later in Olesker’s columns:

On Feb. 19, 2005, Washington Post reporters Matthew Mosk and Lena Sun reported about a personnel controversy at state agencies. On March 1, Olesker wrote about the issue.

From the Post article: “The state has been sued at least six times since Ehrlich took office by workers who alleged they were fired for no reason other than their political affiliation, which is illegal.”

From Olesker’s column: “The state has been sued at least six times since Ehrlich took office by workers who alleged they were fired for their political affiliation. That is against the law.”

On Nov. 17, 2005, the Washington Post’s John Wagner reported about efforts by Wal-Mart to fight a piece of legislation pending in the Maryland General Assembly. Olesker addressed the issue in a Nov. 25 column.

From the Post story: “ . . . the bill, which would require companies with more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on health benefits or contribute to the state’s health insurance program for the poor.”

From Olesker’s column: “. . . a landmark bill (vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.) that would require companies with more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on health benefits or contribute to the state’s health insurance program for the poor.”

On Aug. 27, 2004, the New York Times’ David Leonhard reported on the growing number of poor and uninsured Americans. On Oct. 15, 2004, Olesker weighed in on the government findings.

From the Times article: “But the disparity in incomes between the rich and poor grew after having fallen in 2002. Pay did not keep pace with inflation in the South, already the nation’s poorest region, in cities, or among immigrants. And the wage gap between men and women widened for the first time in four years.”

From Olesker's column: “The disparity in incomes widened between the rich and the poor. Pay did not keep pace with inflation in the cities, among immigrants, or in the South, already the nation’s poorest region. And the wage gap between men and women widened.”

On May 8, 2005, The Sun reported on allegations of sexual misconduct by senatorial candidate Kweisi Mfume while he was head of the NAACP. Olesker wrote about the allegations two days later, on May 10.

From the Sun news story: “The report cites examples of alleged ‘paramours’ of Mfume and his son who received promotions and raises despite poor evaluations, disciplinary actions and relatively little experience.”

From Olesker’s column: “The report points to examples of alleged ‘paramours’ of Mfume and of one of his sons who received promotions and raises despite poor evaluations, disciplinary actions and relatively little experience.”

From the Sun news story: “According to the 2004 report, Speaks complained that after rebuffing an advance by Mfume, she was passed over for raises and a promotion.”

From Olesker’s column: “One employee complained that after rebuffing an advance from Mfume, she was passed over for raises and a promotion.”

On Oct. 31, 2005, the Sun’s David Nitkin interviewed former Ehrlich aide Joseph Steffen. On Nov. 1, Olesker weighed in on the interview.

From Nitkin’s article: “Democrats say Steffen was part of a team hunting for politically disloyal workers. But Steffen said there was nothing improper about his efforts.”

From Olesker’s column: “Democrats say Steffen was part of a team hunting for politically disloyal workers. Steffen says nobody was fired for politics.”

On Jan. 28, 2005, Sun reporter Janice D’Arcy reported about an anti-gay marriage bill. On Feb. 15, so did Olesker.

From D’Arcy’s article:

The rally’s goal was to show support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage, which will be considered in the legislature this session.

Maryland state law already codifies heterosexual marriage. Since nine gay couples filed a lawsuit challenging that law in Baltimore Circuit Court last July, however, many opponents of gay marriage fear the courts will strike it down.

The best defense, they argue, is to adopt a constitutional amendment. Seventeen states have such an amendment, and 11 of those were approved by voters this past Election Day.

From Olesker’s column:

The rally was aimed at supporting a constitutional amendment defining marriage. Maryland law already codifies heterosexual marriage. But since nine gay couples filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court last summer, many opponents of gay marriage fear the courts will strike it down.

So they want constitutional reinforcement. Seventeen states now have it. Eleven of them were approved by voters last Election Day.

“Since these first allegations were raised, we had begun a review of Mike’s columns, because we take any allegation like this very seriously,” Libit said on Jan. 3. “That review is ongoing now and we hope to complete it as soon as possible.” Libit says he was notified of the review on Monday, Jan. 2.

Additional research contributed by Anne Howard.

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