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On Background

Michael Olesker Is A Plagiarist? Who Isn’t?

Jennifer Daniel

By David Simon | Posted 1/18/2006

In the small newsroom of the college newspaper where I learned rudiments of craft, there was affixed to one wall a parody of Edgar Allan Poe, which began, “Once upon a deadline dreary . . . ”

The author, an alumnus of the University of Maryland Diamondback, had butchered “The Raven,” evoking the gothic plight of a journalist trapped at a typewriter, trying to keep his work fresh as he exhausted new developments in the top few paragraphs and was reduced to recounting backstory. To conclude each stanza, the haunting voice came to him:

    Rewrite the background, ever more.

    “No,” wails the reporter, “I will not burden my tale with all that came before.”

    Rewrite the background, ever more.

Funny enough when I first read it, but when I landed on the city desk of The Sun, that doggerel became prophetic. On the police beat, on general assignment, and especially on the rewrite desk, you were usually reacting to new developments on stories that were ongoing for days or months. You would quickly marry the fresh stuff to what had already been reported, more often than not by other staffers. You relied on info from the newspaper library, working your way through old clips, changing a word or two, flipping a sentence with a dependent clause, or, if you needed to lift a large chunk, restructuring a few paragraphs.

Boilerplate, we called this stuff.

On rewrite, too, we were instructed to watch the evening news broadcasts and, later, to check the Associated Press for next-day stuff from The Washington Post. If we were getting beat—and if there was time to make the home final edition—we tried to catch up, to reach sources at home so The Sun would not have to quote competitors. If we couldn’t confirm a competitor’s story, we gave credit.

Given this history, there is behind me a trail of newsprint that includes tens of thousands of paragraphs cribbed from other Sun reporters or reconfirmed from other publications. Am I certain that in every instance I changed enough adjectives, flipped enough sentences, restructured enough paragraphs, and generally rewrote the background enough to avoid a charge of plagiarism? Do I have confidence that in re-reporting others I confirmed every single salient fact?

In the wake of charges leveled against a former colleague, Sun columnist Michael Olesker, I am no longer sure. Having spit out copy at speeds sufficient to make three editions a night for years on end, I am fairly confident that someone, coming behind me, will find instances where my boilerplate material is decidedly similar to its source.

So I am a plagiarist. And if we agree to the definition implied in both City Paper’s coverage of the Olesker imbroglio (Media Circus, Jan. 4) and the Sun’s response, then perhaps every rewrite man is a plagiarist. So, too, for reporters who routinely write stories using morgue clippings for background, or who work to catch up on a competitor’s reportage and err by not independently confirming every single detail. So, too, for every columnist who ever used reported material—either his own newspaper’s or that of another—as the given terrain on which to maneuver.

A lot of people need to be fired, apparently. There may be scribes confident of their day-after-day, year-after-year output, who are sure no paragraph they ever used as background is too similar to its source, who are certain that whenever they reworked another paper’s story every fact was reconfirmed. But there are others—many others—who, in reflecting on Olesker’s fate, will privately admit unease.

Journalism is not scholarship. While reporting requires integrity and precision, it is not a world of footnotes, textual cites, and bibliographic acknowledgment, and the news report of any major daily is a communal property. It is accumulated edition-by-edition, day-by-day, through the labor of many. Working rewrite, if I caught a prison break in the mid-1980s, I cribbed background from Doug Struck, who covered that beat in the ’70s. On a political story, if I needed a clean, accurate explanation of the city Board of Estimates, I was grabbing that piece from Sandy Banisky. And if someone wanted a deadline definition of a semiautomatic weapon, they might have pulled it from
my copy.

Material from other news organizations is more problematic, of course. But consider that former First Lady Barbara Bush was recently quoted in a National Public Radio interview as saying that since evacuees at the Astrodome were “underprivileged anyway,” things were “working very well for them.”

It was a remarkable utterance, exclusive to one news source. Yet within days, newspapers nationwide were citing the quote without crediting NPR. Those who ignored the quote’s proprietary status include columnists from the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, New York Daily News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Des Moines Register, and about 20 others.

The point is not that columnists are unethical. Most reporting—unless it utilizes confidential sources or results from some investigative effort or special project—has a short shelf life before it becomes nonproprietary. In the news cycles after Mrs. Bush made her comment, plenty of credit came to NPR. But as the story aged, the quote was accepted as public domain, and columnists took it as boilerplate.

How then did Michael Olesker come to be singled out for engaging in one of the most widespread practices in daily journalism?

His sins involve a paragraph from a Dec. 12 column that led to the first charge of plagiarism and a Sun correction, as well as six other examples cited by City Paper. Three examples involve the use of Sun content and, for reasons cited above, Olesker’s editors say they were not considered in asking the columnist to resign.

In three of the City Paper examples, those editors say, the work product of others was used without attribution and without Olesker having reconfirmed facts. In one, Olesker referenced six lawsuits filed against the Ehrlich administration—a fact noted 10 days prior by The Washington Post. In the other, Olesker utilized economic statistics as analyzed in The New York Times.

Should Olesker have cited both the originating publications? Sure. His recollection is he didn’t realize the lawsuits hadn’t been reconfirmed by The Sun, but he and others interviewed state officials about their reaction to same. In short, the lawsuits became the basis for discussion in Annapolis, and Olesker reported amid that discussion. As days passed, the fact of the lawsuits, like the Astrodome quote, seemed less proprietary.

The information from the Times article was two months old when Olesker cited it, though again, credit should have been given. Olesker acknowledges this, calling his performance sloppy and saying if an editor had requested attribution, he would have volunteered the Times article readily.

In the initial allegation, a paragraph about former U.S. senator Max Cleland, Olesker acknowledges he clearly based the boilerplate on a Post article, blaming himself for confusing his notes. Yet the facts themselves were not proprietary. Olesker interviewed Cleland at length for a special project, confirming all details independently.

So much for content. As to the rewriting of the background, all examples cited show modest changes; there are no word-for-word lifts of paragraphs or long sentences. But it is just as clear that Olesker was working off the material cited, and that in structure the work is decidedly similar, if not the same.

Are the rewrites too modest? Perhaps, though it begs the question: How many different ways can you say a woman rebuffed Kweisi Mfume’s advances, and in the end, should we care? Taken as a whole—and not deconstructed to stand-alone shards of boilerplate—no one can allege that any of the disputed columns is in style, theme, or substance anything other than Olesker’s own, unique commentary.

Plagiarism is the willful misappropriation of another’s creative efforts, and meaningful examples are those in which one writer’s ideas, arguments, stories, and stylings are stolen and used for gain by another. In this case, I don’t see that kind of theft. There isn’t a line of disputed boilerplate for which a writer could take notable pride, just as the proprietary value of the disputed facts is similarly modest. Owning up for anyone who ever staffed a city desk on night shift, covered a sporting event and cribbed stats from the AP, or filed an overseas dispatch from a hotel room with CNN playing in the background, I’ll argue we’re pretending to purity we never possessed.

Perhaps this is journalism’s current climate. And amid scandals involving outright fabrication, briberies, and misuse of and by unnamed sources, it’s hard to argue against a sea change. Under the Sun’s previous regime, a reporter repeatedly caught fabricating the very premise of news stories was defended. Another, having faked a quote by a New York Times staffer, kept his job by explaining it as an intended exaggeration. And the editors overseeing such moved on to helm the Los Angeles Times and NPR, proving that in journalism as elsewhere, careers are about hiding the dirt. But if a new standard now holds on Calvert Street—and if Olesker’s case is indicative—then the body count can only grow.

Unless, of course, this is a selective prosecution.

Sun editors say they bear no animus for Olesker and that this has been an agonizing event for the newsroom. I believe them. They also insist they are indifferent to political pressure from Gov. Robert Ehrlich and his supporters, who have long been at war with Olesker and the newspaper. I want to believe that, too.

But what happened in the wake of City Paper e-mailing its allegations to the newsroom, according to both Olesker and a union representative present during the negotiations, argues otherwise: To call into a room a man who has done his job with integrity for three decades, to assert on the basis of another publication’s limited evidence that he must resign or be fired, to insist on a decision immediately, to refuse to allow him to consider the question overnight or consult his wife or attorney by phone . . .

If you are indifferent to political forces and public perception, then why such a frantic rush? The Sun says its internal examination is ongoing. Good to know. Perhaps that review will multiply Olesker’s sins. Perhaps it will show practices common to the newsroom and suggest a context for judgment. If no one feels pressured, why not suspend Olesker’s column, complete the review, then respond appropriately?

Regardless of ideological bent, it might be wise for all of us to reflect on the real cost here. At a newspaper diminished financially by out-of-town ownership—where buyouts empty the newsroom of veterans whose sense of Baltimore gave the paper subtlety and relevance—another homegrown voice is silenced.

Notably, too, it is a voice that one of our political leaders wanted gone, but of course ideologues of any stripe delight when any voice not to their liking goes unheard.

It happens, of course, that The Sun is the newspaper of H.L. Mencken, and as this debacle unfolded I was reading Marion Elizabeth Rogers’ new biography. Mencken could not in our age be a columnist for any newspaper, certainly not the one he made famous. This was a man who wrote that Woodrow Wilson had a “congenital incapacity for telling the truth,” called William Jennings Bryan “a walking malignancy,” and hailed Franklin Roosevelt as “an unmitigated S.O.B.”

The Sun never flinched amid the boycotts and public apoplexy such vitriol inspired. Nor did most of the savaged politicians attempt to have Mencken dispatched. It’s worth considering, given what so enraged Ehrlich and began this blood feud involved nothing more than Olesker’s hyperbolic reference to a state spokesman’s facial expression. Back in the day, they made politicians from more substantial stuff. Newspapers, too.

Years from now, it will not be an Ehrlich in Annapolis. And the columnist trying to craft a phrase against him will not be an Olesker, nor necessarily a liberal or centrist voice. The powers-that-be might be Democratic; the criticism of a conservative bent. And yet the politicians and their hatchet men are now free to sift the 10th and 12th paragraphs, hoping to match a sentence or two, or to find an unattributed piece of boilerplate. They can keep files on enemies, and criticism of their policies can be met with ad hominem assaults on the critics. And the columnist? He will choose words in fear of having his integrity challenged on any detail, of having made even the most ordinary mistakes at any point in his career. And his newspaper will matter less for having, in this case, measured its courage with such care.

Mencken now spins. And only a fool or an ideologue would believe that all of us—liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans—are not, in the end, losers for this overblown, overly pious moment.

A Sun reporter from 1982 to 1995, David Simon is the author of Homicide and The Corner, and the executive producer of HBO’s The Wire.

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