Accuracy in Media

A prominent critic of Maryland Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich has been forced to resign after pleading guilty, in effect, to plagiarism. Sanitizing the scandal, the Washington Post calls it a case of “attribution issues.”

Columnist Michael Olesker, a darling of the liberals, was caught using material for his columns from stories in the Washington Post and New York Times and even his own paper, the Baltimore Sun, without attribution. “I made mistakes,” is what he told his own paper in a story about his resignation.

But was it plagiarism? The media want you to believe it depends on how you define the word.

Ehrlich, a very astute media watchdog himself, had been so disgusted by Olesker’s journalistic antics that he had banned state officials from talking to Olesker and another journalist from the Sun. The self-righteous paper had sued over the ban. 

But the Olesker case involves more than just a few mistakes. And his editors at the Baltimore Sun have egg all over their faces for having stood behind him when the first evidence of plagiarism surfaced.

On December 24, the Sun had run a correction about one of Olesker’s columns, saying similarity in wording between his column and a story from the Washington Post had resulted from Olesker simply being confused about what was written in his notes. Sun City Editor Howard Libit gave Olesker the benefit of the doubt, insisting that “these kinds of things” had not come up before when reviewing his work. It turns out that Libit and other Sun editors had not been looking hard enough.

The first “thing” was uncovered by Kevin Dayhoff in an article for, a website serving Frederick County, Maryland. Additional cases were uncovered by Gail Dechter of the Baltimore City Paper.

Among his liberal positions, Olesker was an advocate of gay marriage. In one column, in words that he apparently wrote, he said, “And, please, can we spare ourselves the words about the sanctity of heterosexual marriage? About half of us have been botching the hell out of our sanctified heterosexual marriages, so I’m not sure we’re in a position to judge somebody else’s.”

Over at the Washington Post, media reporter Howard Kurtz played down the scandal, saying that Olesker “used, without attribution, wording similar to that employed by other journalists.”  Kurtz said that Olesker “appeared to borrow language from The Washington Post, New York Times and his own Sun colleagues, although in some cases this was routine information.”

Technically, Kurtz is correct. But it is also true that Olesker should have attributed the information. That would have been the proper thing to do. Some isolated examples of “borrowing” information may be defensible if it is truly isolated or “routine,” as Kurtz puts it. 

But one of the examples cited by Kurtz-and originally exposed by Kevin Dayhoff-is when Olesker used information from a Post story about Max Cleland.

Peter Carlson of the Post had written: “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 wrote: “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.”

Is this “routine” information?

As suggested above, the official explanation of this from the Sun was that Olesker had quoted some notes he had taken about the Post article and thought they were his own thoughts. That theory fell apart when additional cases of plagiarism were uncovered.

The headline over the Kurtz article was that Olesker had been dismissed because of “attribution issues.”

Olesker, by the way, was a guest on Kurtz’s “Reliable Sources” show on CNN. On one occasion, Kurtz described Olesker’s battle with Ehrich this way: “Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich has a problem with ‘The Baltimore Sun.’ He does not like the reporting by state house bureau chief David Nitkin, who wrote a story that included an inaccurate map, and he doesn’t like columnist Michael Olesker, who said the governor’s spokesman, quote, ‘struggled to keep a straight face’ without actually witnessing the facial expression.”

Kurtz then showed a video clip of Governor Ehrlich saying, “With respect to this newspaper and the series of stories over the past few weeks, you are getting not just misstatements of facts, but in some cases wholly invented stories.” (emphasis added).

Ehrlich had nailed Olesker-way in advance of the scandal that toppled him. Ehrlich should be named ombudsman for the Sun.

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