- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Pushed to plagiarize

Be nice to newspaper columnists. We’re under a lot of stress.

“For the past 15 years, the public’s perception of the news media has been becoming more negative, causing historic professional stress for journalists,” says a new study by the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.

Not that newspaper readers don’t have cause to be disgusted with all the recent escapades of fabricating and plagiarizing, the most outrageous offenders being Boston Globe columnist-turned-MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle, promising New York Times reporter Jayson Blair and now Jack Kelley, one-time star correspondent of USA Today.

As for the resulting stress, changes to the journalism code of ethics played a significant part in the negative perception of the fourth estate, says MU journalism professors Bonnie Brennen and Lee Wilkins. The pair analyzed and compared two early codes — the 1923 American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) code and the 1934 American Newspaper Guild (ANG) code — with the 2003 New York Times code of ethics, finding significant shifts in professional thinking.

“The ASNE code set out to maintain the rights and dignity of the profession and tried to establish ethical standards for journalistic conduct,” says Ms. Brennen. “For example, the ASNE code says that invasions of privacy should be avoided unless the public warrants such intrusion, and editors are asked to not publish unofficial charges without giving the people the opportunity to defend themselves.”

The ANG code, at the same time, insists reporters respect the rights of individuals by writing factual and fair news stories that accurately represent an “unbiased account of the news,” and gives scribes little room for exceptions or extenuating conditions.

But when the researchers looked at the New York Times code they found “striking differences” from the ASNE and ANG codes.

“The [New York] Times code focuses mainly on conflicts of interest, economic health and financial success,” says the pair. “Other elements that influence the integrity of the news reports, such as accuracy and tough-minded evaluation of both sources and the information they provide, are not mentioned in the [New York] Times code.”

Connect the dots

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, Texas Republican, wasn’t “quick enough” to the TV dial Sunday night at the conclusion of the NCAA basketball game and “was exposed to a 20-minute infomercial that was passed off as a news interview.”

He was referring to the CBS “60 Minutes” interview with Richard A. Clarke, a former top terrorism official in the previous three administrations (he was demoted by President Bush) who says it is outrageous that Mr. Bush is running for re-election based on national security.

Now the freshman congressman, until late an obstetrician, is connecting the dots.

“CBS, as we learned during the Super Bowl last year after the half-time show, is owned by Viacom,” says Mr. Burgess. “The publisher of the Clarke book is owned by Simon and Shuster. Simon and Shuster … is the publishing operation of Viacom, one of the world’s premier media companies.”

CBS book promotion aside, the congressman praised Mr. Clarke for closing his interview with a comment that “actually should have been first. He said, ‘All of us perhaps share some blame for 911, and I am partly to blame.’

“Yes, Mr. Clarke, indeed you are, and those should have been the first words out of your mouth. While you are at it, how about Mogadishu? How about the first World Trade Center bombing? What about our servicemen at the Kobar Towers? What about the two embassy bombings in Iraq? And, Mr. Clarke, what about the Cole?”

Significant numbers?

By filing another round of lawsuits Tuesday against people for downloading music illegally off the Internet, the Recording Industry Association of America clearly wants to send a message to violators of copyright law.

But the number of lawsuits filed this week, 532, has the RIAA fielding questions as to whether it is trying to send messages of a more subliminal kind. The group filed 532 lawsuits in February and 531 in January.

“It’s just a coincidence,” said RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy, who contends there is no real significance to the numbers, sinister or otherwise.

Mr. Lamy said the Washington trade group for the music industry generally tries to file about 500 lawsuits at a time, and it just so happens that the last three instances have resulted in about 530.

It is worth pointing out, however (cue “Twilight Zone” music), that 532 corresponds exactly to the number of years in which the days of the month will fall on the same weekdays, and the phases of the moon on the same dates. Nostradamus referenced this period when making many of his predictions, and it is also instrumental in establishing the date of Easter each year.

Coincidence? You decide.

John McCaslin, whose column is nationally syndicated, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or jmccaslin@washingtontimes.com.

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