In a recent cover story on fabrication and plagiarism in the media, the American Journalism Review admits there have been many cases of journalists making up stories or sources or stealing information from other people. On the other hand, writer Lori Robertson reports that “many” say that “ethical standards are higher today” in journalism and that “most” news organizations are quick to dismiss the offenders. This is like saying that uncovering cases of corruption proves that the system works.
The real test comes in what’s done with those liars and thieves. Near the end of her article, she cites cases of past offenders who have made a comeback in the media. The list is a long one: Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio, Fox Butterfield of the New York Times, Ruth Shalit of Salon.com., Mike Barnicle, now of the New York Daily News, and Patricia Smith, now of Ms. Magazine. Some of them are also featured on radio and TV. Totenberg is on a Washington talk show where she passes judgement on issues and politicians. And Barnicle is on the Imus radio show. Barnicle told the American Journalism Review that his previous employer, the Boston Globe, rescinded its charge of plagiarism against him. The Globe confirmed this, saying he was fired for fabricating a column.
In a 1995 article about plagiarism in the media, the Columbia Journalism Review described the incident involving Totenberg. She was fired for plagiarism when she worked for the now defunct National Observer. It happened 30 years ago, but wasn’t disclosed until Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal discussed it ten years ago. Totenberg said that what she did was wrong, but that every young journalist is entitled to one mistake.
Trudy Lieberman, the author of the CJR article, said journalists sometimes have a “circle-the-wagons” mentality when their colleagues break ethical rules. But she added, “Reporters didn’t think twice about holding Senator Joseph Biden to the highest standard of honesty when they had revealed that he had plagiarized material for a campaign speech, a story that helped drive him out of the 1988 presidential race.”
As we noted, Lieberman’s article appeared back in 1995. But has anyone noticed that Senator Biden is running for president again, and that he is appearing regularly on the Sunday interview programs? The media seem reluctant to raise the issue of his plagiarism. As recounted by political scientist Larry Sabato, Biden had delivered, without attribution, passages from a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock. Sabato reported that this led to revelations about a serious plagiarism incident involving Biden during his law school years, his exaggerations of his academic record, and the discovery that he had stolen quotations from other politicians in other speeches.
This is a politician who justified the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia because of “genocide,” but nothing remotely approaching genocide was taking place there. It was a civil war that cost the lives of a couple thousand people. So Biden not only steals but lies. Perhaps Biden is staging the kind of comeback that has characterized the careers of media figures such as Totenberg and Barnicle.