Friday, February 19, 2010

Why Has The NYT Remained Silent About Zachery Kouwe? The Newspaper Of Record Owes Its Readers The Full Results Of Its Investigation.

"As you know, we devote considerable effort to correcting errors and disclosing ethical lapses."
--Bill Keller, NYT executive editor, February 18, 2010


Remember that supposed "investigation" into the plagiarism of now-resigned reporter Zachery Kouwe?

"The investigation is ongoing," NYT spokeswoman Diane McNulty told us at 9:51 a.m. on Monday, only 31 hours before Kouwe quit his job.

Well, it was nowhere near finished by Tuesday afternoon, when Kouwe resigned. But its results appear likely to be kept private by the NYT -- which, despite Keller's above statement to Marketwatch this morning, seems hell-bent on keeping what it knows about Kouwe's transgressions a secret from its readers.

Keller, and the NYT, have not answered any specific questions about Kouwe's plagiarism to date, beyond what appeared in its Monday Editors' Note. In a particularly bizarre effort to keep a lid on information, the NYT even went so far as to decline comment to one of its own reporters doing a story on Kouwe's resignation.

Yet only a few hours before Kouwe quit, The NYTPicker has learned, McNulty herself was gathering information for the investigation from a journalist who alleged that Kouwe -- along with NYT Dealbook editor Andrew Ross Sorkin -- had ignored the reporter's requests for credit on a scoop published by Kouwe on Dealbook.

The journalist had approached McNulty on Tuesday morning for help, after earlier efforts to reach Sorkin were unsuccessful -- and after Kouwe himself had denied any wrongdoing.

McNulty interviewed the reporter for 15 minutes on Tuesday morning, pressing for names of other NYT editors who had been approached about the allegations against Kouwe.

The NYT's chief spokeswoman asked for copies of email correspondence between the reporter and Kouwe, which she later told the reporter she had "passed along to the editors."

We have no problem with McNulty's reportorial aggressiveness on behalf of the NYT investigation. In fact, we're impressed with her determination to gather relevant information on Kouwe for her bosses.

What troubles us is that nothing has come of her efforts -- and that the NYT has apparently chosen to leave mutliple instances of Kouwe's plagiarism online, without acknowledgement, in the NYT archives.

This seemingly lax approach to Kouwe's repeated acts of plagiarism contrasts sharply with the highly public and aggressive way in which the NYT addressed ethics allegations against reporter Jayson Blair in the spring of 2004.

After Blair resigned from the NYT in disgrace over charges of plagiarism and fabrication -- before any serious investigation into his work had begun -- NYT brass ordered up a detailed study of Blair's work for the NYT. The team of seven star reporters, including Pulitzer winners David Barstow and Dan Barry, combed through every word Blair had written, for evidence of other misdeeds.

The result was a stunning 7,102-word, page-one unraveling of every deception in Blair's record. It represented a high-water mark of transparency for the NYT -- one that, ironically, contributed to the eventual dismissal of the editors who assigned it, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.

A similarly candid approach doesn't seem to be in the works with the Zachery Kouwe story. The NYT's full public comment on the Kouwe case, issued by McNulty, is that "we don't discuss personnel issues." Even the NYT's sketchy story on Kouwe's resignation attributed the news to "two people briefed on the matter," who "spoke on the condition of anonymity."

No information has been given to NYT readers about the nature or extent of Kouwe's plagiarism, above and beyond the 248-word Editors' Note that appeared in Monday's paper.

That note cited only one specific instance of plagiarism, from the WSJ, although it mentioned "a number of business articles in The Times over the past year" and in "posts on the DealBook blog" in which Kouwe "appears to have" plagiarized other stories.

But to date, the NYT has appended its Editors' Note about Kouwe to only one story in the NYT archive -- the February 6 story with passages apparently lifted from a WSJ piece the previous day.

In other words, the NYT appears to be allowing numerous instances of plagiarized work to remain in the NYT record, without any notation of the material's original source -- justifying its silence on the ground that Kouwe's ethical violations are a "personnel matter."

Keller has made brief public comments on the Kouwe matter -- but none yet to his own newspaper, or to his newspaper's readers.

On Tuesday, Keller sent a brief email to John Koblin, the media reporter of the New York Observer, a weekly paper with a circulation of under 50,000 -- in other words, unread by the vast majority of NYT subscribers and readers.

“We have a zero tolerance policy for unethical journalism,” Keller told Koblin, without mentioning Kouwe by name. “Plagiarism is unethical journalism.”

But until the NYT comes clean about the full extent of Kouwe's plagiarism and misdeeds -- and publicly acknowledges every plagiarized word and scoop that appeared under his byline in the NYT -- then it is tacitly tolerating the ethical violations.

To regain the respect and trust of its readership, the NYT needs to resume and complete its investigation into Kouwe, and then properly credit all plagiarized work to the rightful owners.


Anonymous said...

This blog is getting boring, and I work here. Yawn!

Anonymous said...

The spokesperson is conducting the investigation? Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

The previous post to the contrary. A reasonable degree of consistency as well as transparency and disclosure are not too much to demand in matters like this.
The way the Kouwe case has been handled thus far places damage control above all other considerations, and the comparisons with the Blair case are instructive on a number of levels.

Anonymous said...

It makes to see laugh to see these NYT commenters anonymously trashing this blog. Nervous much?

Anonymous said...

Loss of confidence can quickly become contagious. And it's not just an unoriginal instance of ctrl-x/ctrl-v that makes for unethical journalism, how about David Brooks' invocation of imagery emblematic of a genocidier's strategy for genocide, (decontextualized and paraphrased as: "the governor coming in and offering blankets.")

The copycat turns into a martyr while Brooks' hate speech makes the cut??

Anonymous said...

Uh, a few reused sentences aren't a big deal to me. There are worse crimes committed by omitting information or slanting reporting. I'm not sure what there is to investigate aside from finding similar sentences.

And then this has the potential to haunt every reporter asked to follow in another's steps. It would be a shame if newspaper articles became filled with citations that break the flow of the piece.

I'm all for hanging people who turn in an article that is 80%, 60%, 40% or even 20% the work of someone else. But I haven't seen any evidence of that here.

Anonymous said...

Clearly for some reason the Times wants this story to go away. I wonder why. My guess: the evidence shows that Andrew Ross Sorkin knew what Kouwe was doing, and didn't do anything about it. And the Times can't risk tainting one of its most valuable assets.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn’t David Blum disclose that he's the nytpicker? Isn't that relevant information? Bio:
And his pic:

Anonymous said...

As a wire reporter who works on constant deadline against fierce competitors, I have a different perspective on the story that got Kouwe outed.

Looks to me like he got beat on this Madoff story, incremental as it might be, by his counterpart at WSJ/Dow Jones and had to scramble to get something out before his editor said hey Zach WTF?

So he stole some stuff and slapped together something really quickly.

What busts him is how little he changed the sentences. You see that so much with plagiarists! You'd think they would try and really rewrite stuff but they never do!

If he had the source documents he could have written his own story, in his own hand, without swiping stuff.

I also love the people -- probably daydreamers and patronage hires who can't hack hard news and would rather write nothing but navel-gazing media criticism -- who say that pinching wire copy is "no big deal" and its commodity crap.

Yeah OK! Sure. Why don't you try it sometime?

Anonymous said...

You don't "decline comment." You decline to comment.

To decline comment makes it sound like someone offered you some comment and you said, no, thanks, I'll not have any.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the wire reporter. This issue with Kouwe is how much first to the story or original reporting he was 'borrowing' with out having the sourcing on his own. To me that's stealing.

Yes copying a few sentences is not the most harmful offense that Kouwe is guilty of. There is so much more that he did wrong and we deserve to know how long his editors knew about it or encouraged it.

Anonymous said...

Re: 'How long his editors knew about it or encouraged it'

Long enough to be caught in the act by a victimized competitor. Whether any more comes out is more than doubtful.

Anonymous said...

This is the most uninteresting story I have ever come across on NYTPicker. This guy was a great reporter who uncovered a lot of stuff over the last several years. He was writing 8,000 words a week and some unimportant stories were copied. Big deal, it happens all the time - remember NYTPicker - we're only human. ditsf

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