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18 July 2000

Our current howler (part I): Ask Jeff Jacoby

Synopsis: Should political columnists sound like Dear Abby? To the press corps, it made perfect sense.

Was Jacoby's punishment excessive? No, it wasn't
Jack Thomas, The Boston Globe, 7/17/00

Too few editors questioned columns
Linda Raymond, The Louisville Courier-Journal, 7/16/00

At the Boston Globe, a Question of Who's Right
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 7/11/00

Recycling Shouldn't Be a Crime
James Taranto, The Wall Street Journal, 7/14/00

Should Jeff Jacoby have been suspended by the Boston Globe? Many pundits have said that he shouldn't have. On July 3, Jacoby's Globe column concerned the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it soon became clear that the piece was in some way derived from a set of essays that have been floating around on the Web. What's the problem with something like that? Start with Globe ombudsman Jack Thomas:

THOMAS: On July 3, readers began to call early to complain that Jacoby's column had been pirated from an essay by Paul Harvey. Others said it bore a striking resemblance to an anonymous essay on the Internet...The next day, [editor Renee] Loth saw a column in the Globe by Ann Landers that read a lot like Jacoby's column except that Landers had included a precede that said the column had been submitted by a friend and that the author was unknown.

Linda Raymond, at the Louisville Courier-Journal, described a similar experience:

RAYMOND: On the Fourth of July, The Courier-Journal ran two similar columns by very different columnists...The columns, one by Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe, the other by advice columnist Ann Landers, were both loaded with the sort of patriotic fervor readers sometimes complain this newspaper lacks.

"That could have been a good thing," Raymond writes. But then she listed the problems:

RAYMOND: The columns, which celebrated the price signers of the Declaration of Independence paid for their patriotism, were similar because they were drawn from the same source, an essay that's been bouncing around the World Wide Web for years. No one at The C-J noticed the similarity between the two columns because they are handled by different departments, and no single person reads the whole paper before it goes to print.
*Both columns contained inaccuracies about our Founding Fathers. Just how much was wrong is still a matter of some dispute.
*Jacoby failed to tell readers that the thoughts expressed in his column weren't original with him. Landers said "Ellen in New Jersey" had sent the text she republished and added that Ellen didn't know who wrote it.

Letters began arriving for Raymond, too. "Then readers, who recognized both the materials and the problems, spoke up," Raymond says. "In Louisville, Ivonne Rovira sent me an e-mail noting that we had printed variations of the same, inaccurate legend twice in the same newspaper."

Twice, in the very same paper! Two times! Forget about possible inaccuracies. Let's suppose the two columns were accurate. Do you really think that political columnists should be submitting the same stuff that Ann Landers writes? Should a nationally syndicated political writer be roughly interchangeable with "Ellen in New Jersey?" Jeff Jacoby—he's nationally syndicated—is paid to offer readers his ideas. His need to cut and paste this column mainly suggests that he may not have any.

But all over the press corps, the howling began when poor Jacoby got suspended by the Globe. Few pundits had the slightest idea of what could possibly be so wrong with his column. No one seemed to find it strange that Jacoby was writing like Dear Abby's twin. And most of these pundits seemed unconcerned with the possibility that Jacoby had made errors:

HOWARD KURTZ: In his July 3 column, Jacoby wrote about what became of the signers of the Declaration of Independence—an old theme that has been explored by Paul Harvey, Rush Limbaugh, and others, as Jacoby readily acknowledged when he e-mailed an advance copy of the column to some friends and fans. Jacoby says he checked books, encyclopedias, and Web sites in researching his version, which bore some similarity to the earlier pieces.

Kurtz wrote a full piece on the matter, but he never told readers if Jacoby's column was accurate. And Kurtz says that Jacoby's column "bore some similarity" to other articles, but he makes no attempt to say how much. He reports that Jacoby "says" he did research, but he doesn't say if that's true, and he doesn't say how he knows. He doesn't say what may have been changed from the other familiar Web versions.

But then, should any of this come as a surprise? We're discussing the Washington press corps! And as we've noted, time after time, our Washington pundits, as a class, are devoted to copy-cat conduct. Shameless parroting of standard themes is a way of life for our pundit class. Jacoby doesn't have original ideas? Jacoby is saying the same thing as Ann Landers? Why in the world would that seem strange inside our magpie-like press corps? (At least two other major pundits have also penned columns that were remakes of the Internet offerings.)

At any rate, pundits seemed to have no idea what Jacoby had done that was wrong. "So what exactly was his crime?" James Taranto asked in the Wall Street Journal. Taranto constructed a set of comparisons that were fanciful even by the press corps' lax standards. For example, he compared Jacoby's action to the way a reporter rewrites work off the AP wire. Earlier, Taranto asked this:

TARANTO: Do the Globe's editors really expect their writers to "alert readers" every time they avail themselves of a "concept" that is "not entirely original?"

Eighth graders frequently try to tell Teacher why they copied things out of the World Book. Now they can use the Wall Street Journal for arguments that are a sophist's delight.

How many errors may have been in Jacoby's column? At this point, we don't have a clue. Few mainstream writers discussing this episode have made any effort to say. Should Jacoby have been suspended? On that, we simply express no view; Thomas' piece in yesterday's Globe gives a fuller statement of the newspaper's view. But we think one thing is fairly clear—op-ed pages don't want to publish work that Ann Landers, quoting "Ellen," can also produce. No newspaper wants to have readers making the observations that Globe readers apparently did. The puzzlement widely expressed in the press corps is a tribute to our pundits' love of sound-alike prose. When people repeat soundbites the way these folks do, we may soon find that they've lost even the concept of independent, original thinking.

Strange: That those who declared independence—and a startling new idea—are "praised" in such copy-cat ways.

But our concern with the Jacoby flap went beyond this current column. This wasn't the first time our team of analysts had howled at the columnist's work. Only recently, Jacoby showed how low the current press corps' standards have fallen. And in 1998, a Jacoby column brought our analysts right out of their chairs.

Tomorrow: Gore served up a routine assessment. Jacoby called it a "bald-faced lie."

Visit our incomparable archives: We discussed copy-cat conduct in Capital Style. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/00.


The Daily update (7/18/00)

He might have had a very good answer: He might have had a very good answer. What happened was in no way his fault. But when Cokie Roberts tried to nail down Governor Bush, there was one word for her work. It was hopeless.

Roberts wanted to question Bush about Texas death penalty cases. On what basis could Bush really say that every executed prisoner has been guilty? Roberts could have asked about Gary Graham; the case was recent, and widely discussed. Instead, she played tape of a past Bush statement, and asked about a case which was far more obscure:

BUSH (video clip from March 2): I'm absolutely confident that everybody that's been put to death is two things: One, they're guilty of the crime charged, and, secondly, they had full access to our courts, both state and federal.

ROBERTS: Now, the day before that [statement], a man was executed [in Texas], Odell Barnes. And he had all kinds of evidence against him, which in the final stage of the investigations, new lawyers had information that called every piece of evidence into question. And none of that was ever heard by a court, because the way the system works is that if you don't have it in the first appeal, you can't get it in later.

What "information" was she talking about? Here at THE HOWLER, we didn't have the first clue. Neither apparently did Governor Bush. This was his answer to Roberts:

BUSH: Well, I don't remember the specifics of Odell Barnes. And I'm not castigating you now—and I wish you would have given me a chance to bring the full dossier, so I could have discussed it in detail with you. You just need to know this, that on every case, my lawyers look at it extensively. The board of pardons and parole analyzes all evidence and all aspects of the case. And so I, you know, if I could remember the specifics, I would be glad to discuss them.

Should Roberts have let Bush prep on the Barnes case? On that, we offer no view. But if she had simply asked about Gary Graham, most viewers—and surely Governor Bush—would have remembered the evidentiary questions. Roberts was forced to flounder about Barnes: "But regardless of the specifics—I mean, I can go into them, but it would take too much time," she was forced to reply to what Bush said. In the end, "I don't recall" was the only answer she got to her question.

At the time that Gary Graham was executed, we noted that reporters never asked Governor Bush to explain how he viewed the facts of the case (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/00, 6/27/00). In particular, what had Bush decided about the two eyewitnesses who never got to testify? Given those witnesses, how could Bush be sure that Graham was really the killer? Bush might have had a very good answer. Or his answer might have fallen short. But—typical of this poorly-run program—on This Week, we never found out.

Tomorrow, we'll let you see what happened when Sam Donaldson asked a few budget questions.

Commentary by Cokie Roberts, George W. Bush
This Week, ABC, 7/16/00