As usual, public editor Clark Hoyt failed in his most basic job as a journalist yesterday. He took a news source's story at her word, without performing the job he's paid to do: determine the facts.
Hoyt joined the chorus of those who don't label what Maureen Dowd did -- publishing the words of blogger Josh Marshall under her byline in her May 13 column -- as plagiarism. In his column yesterday, Hoyt reported that he interviewed Dowd, who told him that "the passage in question was part of an email conversation" with a friend.
That means we now supposedly know for certain what we'd previously been forced to assume -- that Dowd cut and pasted the passage from her friend's email and into her column.
This action prompted Hoyt to draw a typically baffling conclusion. "I do not think Dowd plagiarized," Hoyt wrote, "but I also do not think what she did was right."
That is what is known as a distinction without a difference.
But what's truly significant about Hoyt's column is what it didn't tell us, and what questions it left unanswered.
Here's what we still don't know about the Dowd case -- two crucial questions The NYTPicker posed in two separate emails to the NYT last week, which got no response:
Did Dowd disclose to Hoyt, or to her editors at the NYT, the identity of the "friend" whose email she allegedly copied?
Has Dowd been asked to shown the friend's email, or their correspondence, to anyone -- either Hoyt or her editors -- to back up her version of what happened?
In the absence of any response, we assume the answer to both questions is no. A NYT spokeswoman specifically said last week that "there is no need to do anything further since there is no allegation, hint or anything else from Marshall that this was anything but an error."
But what if the person whose work was appropriated has his own reasons for not pursuing allegations of plagiarism?
We think that's a relevant and important issue in this story that hasn't been addressed -- in some ways, perhaps the most relevant to the NYT's inadequate handling of the Dowd accusations -- and we'll come back to it.
But first, we want to explain why we still wonder whether Maureen Dowd is lying, and what we think she could be lying about.
The longer the NYT goes without telling us what it knows -- and the longer Dowd goes without elaborating on her sketchy excuse for what happened -- the more our mind wanders to a series of troubling questions about her explanation for what happened.
Why is Dowd not publicly addressing certain aspects of the story of her friend and the email?
Dowd has a stellar record as an ethical journalist, and a teller of truth. But any student of plagiarism knows it's commonplace for the accused to mask their deception. In the 2003 case of Jayson Blair -- whose road to ruin began with accusations of plagiarism lodged by a Texas newspaper reporter -- the young NYT reporter vehemently denied having plagiarized, and even produced notes to document his supposed "reporting." It wasn't until the NYT investigated Blair, and uncovered a pattern of deceptions and fabrications, that Blair acknowledged his guilt.
We're not suggesting that even in a worst-case scenario, Dowd could have committed a journalistic breach even remotely on the level of Jayson Blair. But we do believe an internal investigation is appropriate and necessary whenever anyone is accused of plagiarism, and no matter who is complaining.
Why is Dowd protecting the identity of her friend? Is it for reasons that would cause more problems for her or the NYT?
In Dowd's initial email statement, she referred to her "friend" without any reference to gender. However, in a followup email to The NYTPicker, Dowd referred to the friend as a "he." She has made no further comment about the friend's identity, except to say that it wasn't Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who is widely known as a frequent confidant of the columnist.
Why is Dowd protecting the identity of her friend? And why hasn't her friend come forward to accept responsibility for the plagiarism, exonerating Dowd? Isn't that what friends are for?
The fact that the friend hasn't spoken up -- or been identified -- suggests that Dowd doesn't want her source identified for some reason. But what could that reason be?
One possible theory is that her "friend" works for the NYT. Wouldn't that present additional complications for both Dowd and the paper? Think about it: if a NYT reporter or editor were demonstrated to be the source of the plagiarism, the NYT goes from being a concerned spectator to an active participant in the act.
Dowd's incomplete explanation has left many readers -- including prominent media critics like Jack Shafer at Slate -- waiting for details. Shafer called her story "a tad incomplete" and advised: "The best and perhaps only way for Dowd to set things right will be to...tell her readers in detail how she came to commit this transgression."
Dowd hasn't done so. We emailed Dowd last night with the same questions we posed to the NYT last week -- about whether she produced any evidence to support her story to her editors. We also asked her if her "friend" was an employee of the NYT. She hasn't responded.
You may be thinking that we're a little too quick to question Dowd -- that with a Pulitzer Prize and a sparkling career as a columnist on her resume, that there's no reason to doubt her word.
But when you consider Dowd's curious avoidance of full disclosure last Sunday about the allegations of plagiarism, it's impossible not to wonder why she was being so evasive in answering simple questions -- and whether that suggested some element of deceit.
In her first email to The NYTPicker last Sunday night, Dowd explained that "I was talking to a friend Friday about what I was writing."
Now, a week later, we know that wasn't true.
It turns out Dowd wasn't "talking," she was emailing. It's a distinction that Dowd was smart enough to understand last Sunday. She knew that by using the word "talking," she was intending us to consider it a verbal communication.
When we followed up with Dowd last Sunday to ask if the friend had "dictated" the quote, Dowd definitively said "no," and added: "We were going back and forth discussing the topic of the column."
Yet again, Dowd deflected the question of how the line got transmitted.
When we pressed the point a third time, Dowd again avoided giving a direct answer. "A friend suggested I make this point," Dowd wrote us. "I paid attention and made the point." Still no answer to our direct inquiry about how it was transmitted.
We sent a fourth email with the same question and another about the identity of the friend; this time, she ignored the question about whether it was dictated or emailed, and instead just denied that the friend was Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic.
We asked a fifth time. This time Dowd disclosed: "It's a friend I talk to by phone and email." But still no answer about how the quote got communicated.
Our last email exchange -- when we asked for the sixth time whether the Marshall line came to her via email or by phone -- she said curtly: "I thought I said here it was someone I talk to on both."
And that was Dowd's final contact with the NYTPicker, or anyone else, until she finally told Hoyt that the line came in what Hoyt called an "email conversation."
The more we examine Dowd's responses to us last Sunday, the more convinced we become that her determination not to answer has some deeper explanation than a simple failure to comprehend the question.
Why was Dowd deflecting such a simple inquiry? Why, when asked whether NYT editors had checked out Dowd's story, did the NYT's spokespeople fall silent? Why did Clark Hoyt not even bring up the identity of the friend, or pursue any reporting of his own on the email in question?
It all comes down to Dowd's own prominence as a NYT columnist, and the power of the NYT to intimidate its critics.
Even Clark Hoyt -- whose job is to question, to doubt, and to investigate the institution that pays his salary -- seemed cowed by Dowd. Instead of describing the episode as a legitimate inquiry into a possible plagiarism, he cast it as a web-based feeding frenzy.
"The Internet was soon aflame with charges of plagiarism," Hoyt wrote today, implying that the print world wasn't nearly so convinced of Dowd's sins.
And Hoyt repeated Marshall's own comment on the matter, which had become the basis for the NYT's belief that the Dowd story warranted no further attention. "We're too quick to pull the trigger with charges of plagiarism," Marshall posted on his website, adding that the correction the NYT published was "pretty much the end of it."
But Hoyt failed to note the obvious fact that Marshall -- like Dowd, a political commentator, but unlike Dowd, a blogger -- had every reason to want to avoid a conflict with one of the nation's most powerful columnists, and the newspaper of record.
Is it worth noting that a little over a year ago, the NYT published a laudatory 1400-word profile of Marshall by Noam Cohen, in connection with winning a George Polk Award? We think it is. We don't doubt Marshall's integrity for a second, but we also figure that a fight with the NYT -- and Maureen Dowd -- over a plagiarism accusation was the last thing he wanted to engage in last week.
Here's our point. If the only standard the NYT follows in deciding whether to investigate plagiarism is whether the victim wants to press charges, doesn't it risk the regular possibility that journalists won't want to do battle with a place that could one day employ them?
We could easily see the day when Marshall could become a contender for an op-ed column at the NYT. Isn't it possible he wouldn't want to risk the damage to those chances that a plagiarism fight would create? Dozens -- probably hundreds -- of top journalists would probably want to avoid such a fight even if their work was plagiarized, and for the same reason. Add Maureen Dowd to the mix, and you've got some excellent motivation to stand down.
We're arguing for an objective standard for plagiarism investigations -- one that applies equally to all reporters and columnists, regardless of whether the victim feels victimized or not. NYT readers ought to know that the paper's editors remain vigilant to protect basic standards of integrity, whether forced to or not by bloggers, media critics or Public Editors.
We were grateful that Maureen Dowd decided to respond to our emails last week, and we've been appreciative in the past that NYT editors and public-relations personnel have answered our questions. We've gotten the distinct sense that the NYT likes the fact that we don't just make assertions; we also ask questions, do reporting, and seek to present the truth.
The reason for this post tonight is that we have waited five days for the NYT to respond to our questions, and have been forced to assume -- by the uncharacteristic silence of Catherine Mathis and her lieutenant, Diane McNulty -- that the NYT is unwilling to disclose whether it has investigated any of Dowd's assertions.
It's important to note here that we're not asking the NYT to disclose the identity of her friend, or to release the text of the email. All we want to know is whether Dowd's editors know who the friend is, and whether they've seen the email for themselves.
If the answer to those questions is yes, then we'll believe Dowd's story.
But as long as the NYT declines to answer our questions, we'll keep wondering whether Dowd was been lying in her emails to The NYTPicker last week. And the more we read them, the more we wonder.
In the seven months since The NYTPicker began publishing, we have occasionally been called "cowards" by those who believe our anonymity diminishes our credibility. If we were willing to put our names behind our reporting, the theory goes, we'd be more deserving of respect.
But we hope it's obvious to our readers -- who have followed our efforts to report the Dowd story through interviews and analysis of the facts and statements available to us -- that we're not a shoot-from-the-hip blog that makes ad hominem attacks on its subjects, or applies personal invective to our commentary.
We have the utmost respect for Maureen Dowd and the NYT, and want nothing more than to see her cleared of these accusations. But we see no way for that to happen unless she, or the NYT, comes clean about what happened -- or at least to tell us she's produced evidence to document her story.
If there is any coward in the events of the last week, it's Dowd and her "friend." If either of them had come forward to her editors with the details of what happened between them -- enough to document Dowd's story beyond suspicion -- then discussion of this supposed "plagiarism" would have long been over.
But by hiding behind Josh Marshall's unwillingness to challenge the NYT, Dowd and her friend -- and the NYT itself -- are shielding themselves from legitimate questioning in a way that the NYT and Dowd would never allow in the people and institutions they cover. Why does Dowd have the right to demand courage and transparency from the rest of the world, while not offering any of her own?
That is the behavior of a coward who has something to hide.