Phil Bronstein, executive vice president and editor-at-large of the San Francisco Chronicle, took to the Huffington Post last night to accuse NYT San Francisco correspondent Jesse McKinley of "borrowing" the lede to his profile of new Oakland police chief Anthony Batts from the Chronicle.
"Maybe the Times was just being economical," Bronstein said sarcastically of the supposed borrowing.
It's a serious accusation. And in this case, Bronstein is full of shit.
Bronstein ignores one of the basic reasons stories often overlap -- which is that the news can't be changed to accommodate a newspaper's desire for complete originality in reporting. You can own your writing and your voice, but you can't own the news.
True, the Chronicle story (which appeared on August 17, by reporter Matthai Kuruvila) opens with virtually the same lede as the piece by McKinley, which led off the NYT's new Bay Area report last Friday. Here are the ledes, first from the Chronicle:
When a headhunter called Long Beach Police Chief Anthony Batts in March and asked him whether he was interested in becoming Oakland's next chief, Batts knew the answer: No.
"I was happy in Long Beach," Batts said during his first public appearance Monday since accepting the chief's job in Oakland.
But everything changed three days later, on March 21: four Oakland police officers were gunned down in the deadliest day for law enforcement in the city. Batts viewed the television coverage.
"I watched the pain and the suffering in the Police Department," he said. "I watched the pain and the suffering in the community as it too hurt at the same time."
After attending the officers' funeral at the Oracle Arena, Batts said he text-messaged the headhunter: "I want to help."
Anthony W. Batts was enjoying a successful run as the head of the Long Beach police when a headhunter called last winter and asked if the chief’s job in Oakland had any appeal. Mr. Batts said no.
Then, he said, came March 21, when a recently released parolee, Lovelle Mixon, shot and killed four Oakland police officers and cemented the city’s reputation as the violent crime capital of the Bay Area.Sitting at the officers’ funeral, Mr. Batts said, he changed his mind. “I decided that I’d like to help,” he said.
Yes, they're very similar. But that's for one simple reason: it's a good anecdote, and the facts of it can't be altered simply because the NYT wants to differentiate itself from the previous story. There just aren't two different ways to tell that tale.
What McKinley did instead, to set himself apart from the Chronicle piece, was to present NYT readers with a thorough, well-reported and breezily-written analysis of Batts's background and experience, and the challenges presented by the Oakland job. Filled with facts and insight, McKinley's story trumps the Chronicle version in every way.
The fact is that a reporter doesn't own information. In this case the anecdote belongs to Batts, and it's his right to disseminate it to whoever he wants. Bronstein has no right to suggest that McKinley wasn't properly doing his job by using the story -- which makes for a compelling introduction into his well-executed Batts profile.
If Bronstein were spending more time policing the quality of his own reporters' pieces instead of searching for plagiarism cases that don't exist, maybe the NYT wouldn't have seen a competitive opening for its new San Francisco report.
As long as the Chronicle continues to suck, Bronstein should probably get used to seeing his half-baked news accounts get redone -- and improved -- by the superior talents the NYT has at its disposal.