Kids without dogs have a sure-fire new excuse for not doing their homework these days: The computer ate it. Now that rationalization is making its way into explanations for bad journalism.
Ruth Shalit of The New Republic has copped to repeated instances of uncredited excerpting from other publications in recent months, which she has blamed on sloppy downloading. In February, an SF Weekly reader caught out Chronicle Political Editor Susan Yoachum lifting two paragraphs almost verbatim from a Reuters news wire story. (Although Yoachum also blamed an inadvertent electronic merger, she took full responsibility.)
But now comes a crib job of depressing magnitude.
Seems that 12 whole paragraphs from a June 2 Washington Post book review showed up in the June 30 Chronicle review of the same book (Marshall Frady's Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson). New York writer Jim Sleeper, who wrote the original review for the Post, received a letter of explanation from Chronicle Book Review Editor Patricia Holt last week.
In three tortuous, single-spaced pages, Holt told Sleeper that the transgressing reviewer, Chron Op-Ed Editor Dean Wakefield, had innocently copied a wire version of Sleeper's review because he was inexperienced at biographical critiquing and wanted to see how it was done right. Holt said that sometime later, with deadline approaching and Wakefield out of town, she looked up the file in his computer queue and assumed it was Wakefield's own work. When he later filed a completely different piece, Holt said, she found the second version inferior and decided to use much of the earlier draft. She cobbled that together herself.
Bad enough that Holt read two such differing works without questioning authorship. It gets worse. Holt said Wakefield signed off on her splice job, having only read the first paragraph, which was indeed his own work.
Holt concluded her letter to Sleeper with profuse apologies and included a correction that she proposed running in the July 28 book issue. For whatever reason, however, the Chron stuck a version of that correction into the July 20 Datebook last Saturday, where, alas, it got the book author's first name wrong and referred to Jim as "James," a moniker he never uses.
Wakefield professed mystification. "I sent Pat Holt a review, but that was not what appeared in the paper," he said, adding that he's bothered by editors having unfettered access to others' queues. But he also conceded he wasn't "attentive" enough to either the e-mail he received from Holt or the editing process.
Holt, for her part, was forthright about the screw-up when reached on Monday. "It is a terrible blunder on our part," she said. "The lure of electronic technology lets you do things faster and faster, and it's clear I was moving too fast."
Indeed. The extent of misfeasance here is inversely proportional to the charges of plagiarism; the more convincing Holt and Wakefield are at showing a lack of intent, the greater appears the incompetence.
Sleeper, for one, is not satisfied with their amends. "They have a moral and professional obligation to inform the readers of the book review section," Sleeper said by phone on Monday, "not just bury something in the entertainment section of the Saturday paper that nobody buys."
Holt said that an additional correction would be running Sunday as promised.
In a world where morphing video images and sampling audio bites has become commonplace, it may be tough to separate the cheat from the gaffe on such matters. The upcoming edition of the Chronicle Sunday Book Review will be a good place to start.