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Who’s Accusing WBAL-TV of Copying Other Media Outlets’ Reporting?

LIVE, LOCAL, ALREADY BROKEN?: WBAL-TV reporter David Collins faces accusations of iffy reporting--accusations which may stem from his pursuit of the Joseph Steffen scandal.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 5/18/2005

An anonymous letter delivered to City Paper last week accuses WBAL-TV reporter David Collins of plagiarizing The Sun and of misrepresenting information that had been published months earlier in The Washington Post and the Montgomery County Gazette as his own exclusive reporting.

Collins and the local NBC affiliate deny any wrongdoing and say that he is the victim of a politically motivated campaign designed to sabotage the veteran TV reporter’s reputation.

A member of the WBAL “I-Team” of investigative reporters, Collins has been aggressively pursuing the story of Joseph Steffen, a former Gov. Robert Ehrlich aide. Steffen appears to have been prodded by an anonymous internet user with the screen name MD4BUSH into posting intemperate messages about alleged marital infidelity of Mayor Martin O’Malley—the Republican governor’s presumptive Democratic opponent in next year’s gubernatorial election—on a conservative online message board. Steffen resigned soon after the Post broke the story in February.

In recent weeks, Collins’ on-air reports have probed the identity of MD4BUSH, including speculation that the anonymous poster may be connected with the O’Malley campaign or the state Democratic Party, and may have lured Steffen into discussing salacious rumors about the mayor with the intention of embarrassing the governor by making those online discussions public.

The anonymous letter to City Paper concludes with a comment suggesting that its author is displeased with the direction of Collins’ recent reporting: “In their inexplicable zeal to do Governor Ehrlich’s and Joe ‘The Prince of Darkness’ Steffen’s dirty work by exposing the Deep Throat who uncovered Ehrlich’s political hit man,” it reads, “WBAL’s ‘I Team’ has plagiarized the work of other journalists.”

Editors at both The Sun and the Post say they were already aware of the instances of alleged plagiarism and unethical reporting described in the letter to City Paper. Neither paper contests the basic facts as described in the letter.

The unsigned letter details three instances of alleged wrongdoing by Collins, the most serious of which is the claim of plagiarism:

On the morning of April 26, U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, D-3rd, held a press conference announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes. That afternoon, Sun statehouse reporter David Nitkin filed his account of the announcement, which first appeared on the Sun’s web site at around 2 p.m., according to the paper’s online news editor, Matthew Baise.

The first sentence of Nitkin’s 18th paragraph is: “Cardin begins the race with a reservoir of support among the Baltimore political establishment, as well as from environmentalists and women’s groups.”

That evening on the Channel 11 evening news, Collins introduced his own coverage of the Cardin announcement with this line to news anchor Stan Stovall: “Well, Stan, Ben Cardin begins the race with a wealth of support from the Baltimore political establishment, as well as environmental and women’s groups.”

The similarity between the sentences is a coincidence, Collins says, who insists he didn’t read Nitkin’s coverage before writing his own and didn’t have access to the internet besides. “I was out of the building that day, and my computer was down,” he says.

WBAL-TV news director Michelle Butt says the likeness is an innocent by-product of journalistic style conventions.

“That’s called writing in threes,” she says. “That’s good journalism.”

Butt bristles at the suggestion that her reporter might have even inadvertently lifted a line from the daily paper. “David doesn’t spend his days reading the Baltimore Sun,” she says.

The Sun and WBAL-TV are media partners, a relationship that includes cross-promotions as well as sharing the results of each organization’s newsgathering. Sun multimedia editor Steve Sullivan says that the partnership does not permit TV reporters to read newspaper copy on air without attribution.

Nitkin declined to speculate about whether he believes Collins plagiarized his article. “We were made aware of the similarity in that story,” he says. “We raised the issue with WBAL producers and we got their explanation, and it seemed reasonable.”

The explanation The Sun received from Butt, Sullivan says, is that it was likely that both reporters were paraphrasing a generic line uttered by a third person present at Cardin’s press conference, perhaps the congressman himself. That would account, Butt explained to Sullivan, for the remarkable similarity.

“[Butt] had a perfectly legitimate response,” Sullivan says. “What you saw in both reports was an indirect quotation that wound up as a paraphrase in both stories, that sounded almost identical.”

But that explanation is not reasonable, Nitkin says when asked about it in a follow-up interview. Nitkin says he recalls composing the line, and that he is certain it appeared in his first draft and that it’s not an indirect quote from Cardin or anyone else. “That’s my analysis,” he says. “I wrote that line.”

“With apologies to the Sun reporter, it doesn’t sound to me like the most stunningly original piece of analysis,” says Chip Scanlan, a journalism teacher at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute who has written about plagiarism in the news media. “But if I had written that and then heard it on TV, I might think, Geez, what did they do, just rip and read?

The term “rip and read” originates from the days when news copy from wire services like Associated Press and United Press International was transmitted through paper printers. When pressed for time, broadcast anchors would literally tear sheets of breaking-news copy from the printer and read them verbatim over the air.

The letter to City Paper also accuses Collins and WBAL-TV of taking reporting credit for news previously published in the Post and the Montgomery Gazette.

On the evening news of April 20, WBAL-TV announced that it had “for the first time,” obtained both sides of a private e-mail correspondence between MD4BUSH and ncpac, Joseph Steffen’s online alter ego. It is in this story that Collins reports the theory that MD4BUSH may be a Democratic plant baiting Steffen. However, much of the content of the “private e-mails” obtained by the I-Team that “shed new light” (as anchor Marianne Banister put it) on the story had already been reported in a Feb. 11 Washington Post story by Matthew Mosk and David Snyder, more than two months earlier.

Butt defends her station’s neglect to mention the Post as the original publisher of parts of the online exchange on the grounds that WBAL obtained the correspondence independently of the Post, and advanced the story beyond what the Post had done. They are under no obligation to credit the newspaper just because it reported part of the information first, Butt says.

On this point of professional courtesy the Washington Post respectfully disagrees, Maryland editor R.B. Brenner says, but decided not to press the issue with WBAL because of the Baltimore station’s relatively small size. However, when the Post heard that the AP was planning its own report on the WBAL investigation, the Washington newspaper requested that the wire service acknowledge in its article that the private correspondence between MD4BUSH and ncpac was first reported by the Post. The subsequent April 21 AP story credits the Post with earlier reporting.

Such behind-the-scenes negotiations indicate the sensitivity in print journalism today about what might be overlooked in other industries. In the wake of high-profile scandals involving fabrication and plagiarism at The New York Times and other major papers, journalists have become both increasingly self-critical and ticklish about allegations of impropriety.

Nitkin—who declined to evaluate the criticisms made against Collins—says he likes and respects the WBAL reporter and considers him a valuable colleague. But he also says that if a Sun reporter were believed by his editors to lift even a line from wire copy, or fail to attribute information to the original source, “it would be grounds for severe punishment. People get reprimanded, demoted, and sometimes fired for offenses like that,” he says.

Indeed, two weeks ago a USA Today reporter resigned after he was discovered to have used quotes from The Indianapolis Star without attributing them to that newspaper.

Journalistic practices differ between print and broadcast media, Sun multimedia editor Steve Sullivan says. “Historically, the broadcast media has been a little bit looser with the rules. I’m not saying they rip and read at will, although there are stations in this town that do. We monitor radio broadcasts and TV broadcasts,” Sullivan adds. “And it really ruffles our feathers when we hear enterprise stories that we have in the paper reported using the same unique language, or citing quotes from people we talked to in our stories, and we don’t get credit for the reporting.”

The third accusation in the anonymous letter criticizing Collins involves a February column by the Gazette’s Barry Rascovar. Again, the letter writer criticizes Collins for failing to acknowledge that Rascovar was the first journalist to publish one excerpt of the online exchange between MD4BUSH and Joseph Steffen.

“My nose is not out of joint on this,” Rascovar says in response to the allegation, which he hadn’t heard before being contacted by City Paper. “I think Collins’ reporting overall has advanced the [Steffen] story way beyond what I reported. If along the way he didn’t give the Gazette credit for one aspect of the story, it’s probably an oversight. I’m more interested in pursuit of a story like this, until you get some answers. And I think WBAL at least has been very dogged to get to the bottom of this, and it hasn’t been easy.”

Rascovar believes the accusations against Collins are being made by someone who doesn’t want WBAL to get to the bottom of the story. “If I had to speculate, I’d say it’s a female who’s involved up to her neck in the [Steffen] story,” Rascovar says, referring to Michelle Lane, a former Ehrlich administration appointee who believes she was fired on Steffen’s recommendation. “Of all the people who have been mentioned in this story [Michelle Lane] is the only one who seems to have taken the role of avenging angel. Of course, that’s sheer speculation, all of it.”

Lane did not return phone calls, but her attorney Daniel Clements says he “has no reason to believe” she was the author of the letter to City Paper. Clements does acknowledge, however, that Lane was deeply angered at Collins when he reported in March rumors that she had once been romantically involved with Steffen—rumors Clements says his client denies.

Given the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Maryland and increasing scrutiny of journalistic ethics, Nitkin says he wouldn’t be surprised to see more politically motivated charges leveled against local reporters. “I haven’t noticed a trend here yet,” he says. “But I’ve got my antennae up.”

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