- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2000


Since the Boston Globe suspended conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby for four months without pay for failing to source a historical and inspirational column about the signers of the Declaration of Independence, journalists have been weighing the gravity of Mr. Jacoby's offense against the severity of his sentence. Across the ideological spectrum, happily enough, a consensus has formed holding that Mr. Jacoby's offense was on the minuscule side, better handled by a fly-swatter than the sledgehammer selected by his employer. Considering the breathtaking force of the professional blow Mr. Jacoby is still reeling from as much to his reputation as to his pocketbook an unsettling question lingers unanswered: Has Mr. Jacoby, the lone conservative voice of an ultra-liberal paper, been punished for his politics?
This question may never be answered definitively. But in order for the Globe to clear this cloud of suspicion, it needs to consider a tried-and-true journalistic practice: correcting the record. Happens all the time in one form or another. Why, just last Friday, the New York Times, flagship paper of the company that owns the Globe, ran a typical assortment of corrections. For example, careful readers learned that Tabasco is a state in Mexico, not the name of its governor (the paper didn't mention it is also a muy caliente sauce). They learned that a photograph of an insurance agent should have been credited to one Don Ipock, not Don Ipook; and, last and definitely not least, that an article "about fiberglass cows on exhibition in the New York area" gave the incorrect address for Fresco, a cow who reclines in an inner-tube.
More to the point, however, is a 141-word Editor's Note that ran below the corrections. It concerned a June 27 obituary about the extraordinary life and times of Vera Atkins, a British secret service dynamo who, during World War II, selected and schooled agents for undercover work in occupied France. It seems that the newspaper's obituary included unattributed material from Miss Atkins' Times of London's obituary. How much unattributed material? "Five brief passages," said the New York Times, out of an article, the note hastened to remind readers, that was 1,000 words long. (A reasonable reader of both obituaries may detect more similarities than the note's precise reckoning, but no matter.) "Although the London paper was cited as a source for some material," the New York Times continued rather expansively considering the Times of London was cited for exactly one word "those five passages should have been attributed to it, or should have been rephrased." End of story.
While the parallels between the New York Times' obituary and the Boston Globe column are hardly infinite, they do extend far enough to be instructive. In both cases, a writer failed to attribute the source of historical material (in Mr. Jacoby's case, the material was so familiar that he says he mistakenly assumed it to be in the public domain). On discovering the omission, however, the New York Times simply noted it. The Boston Globe, of course, stripped Mr. Jacoby of his column, his paycheck and his professional reputation.
Consider two far more flagrant examples, one recently reported by Dan Kennedy, a media writer for the liberal Boston Phoenix. In 1996, Boston Globe cartoonist Paul Szep, copied two pictures (including a cover illustration for Mother Jones). Punishment? Mr. Szep was quietly suspended for two weeks. Mr. Kennedy also brought up the 1991 incident in which New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield was suspended for one week for having copied several paragraphs from, as it happened, a Boston Globe story about get this plagiarism. The point is not that everybody does it. Everybody does not do it. But the Jacoby affair suggests that an unfair double standard exists for a conservative columnist, and it is only the Boston Globe that can correct this troubling impression.

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