Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.
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Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
Another ethics controversy has hit the "Boston Globe." And one columnist is taking the heat.
Boston Globe readers won't be able to find conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby on the paper's editorial page or on the Globe's Web site anytime soon. Jacoby was suspended for four months without pay for failing to tell readers that his July 3 column tracing the fate of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was not an original idea.
The subject had been written about numerous times, including accounts by such well known figures as Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh. Editorial page Editor Renee Loth defends the lengthy suspension of Jacoby saying, "Our decision is a proportionate response to such a journalistic lapse."
This is the latest embarrassment to hit the Boston Globe just two summers after "Globe" metro columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle were forced to resign from the paper in far more serious ethical controversies of their own.
So was Jacoby's suspension and overreaction by the Globe? Or did his writing constitute serious journalistic misconduct just short of plagiarism?
Well, joining us now from Boston, suspended Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. Welcome.
JEFF JACOBY, SUSPENDED COLUMNIST, BOSTON GLOBE: Thank you.
KURTZ: Jeff, before we get into the details of your alleged wrongdoing, I think it's fair to say that many people both at the Globe and a number of outside commentators feel that the Globe acted too harshly in your case. Do you believe your punishment was in any way, even indirectly, related to the fact that you have been the only conservative voice on a very liberal op-ed page?
JACOBY: Indirectly? In a sense, maybe. It was probably easier to do this to somebody like me since I'm something of a lightning rod at the Boston Globe.
But I think it's more likely that this was a drastic overreaction brought on by hypersensitivity to the Barnicle-Smith business from two years ago. And I'm paying the price for what was done by others.
KALB: Jeff, how do you handle this specific that I will read now and direct quote by the publisher of the Boston Globe in which he ordered your suspension?
"We cannot look the other way if any of our columnists, reporters, or writers borrow without attribution from the works of others even in an attempt to improve on it? The Globe will not oblovigate (ph) in abiding by the highest journalistic standards and ethics."
Essentially they're accusing you of being guilty on a variety of counts. Your response?
JACOBY: I believe, as the Boston Globe believes, in high ethical standards, especially when it comes to journalism. I believe in dotting ethical I's and crossing ethical T's. But I also believe in common sense.
This Independence Day column that I wrote was a retelling of a story that's been told over and over and over again. What I sat down to write was an inspirational piece working with material that's in the public domain.
You've got to be able to use common sense when you're doing journalism as well. And there are some things that are so well known, so familiar, so common that to attempt to attribute them would be a little bit ridiculous.
KALB: I'm thinking of a definition of the word original. Do you have any original ideas lately? For example, if you take a long backward look in history, everybody has been rewriting the Bible for 2,000 years.
KURTZ: Well, Bernie, there's a lot of recycling that goes on in daily journalism. But Jeff Jacoby, you acknowledge in an e-mail that you sent out to a bunch of friends the day before the column was published that this was in fact your treatment on an idea that had been treated many other times before by writers both in print and on the Internet.
KURTZ: So the question becomes why didn't you tell the "Boston Globe's" readers about that? Was that a mistake? And do you think that some kind of punishment would have been warranted in this case?
JACOBY: It would absolutely have eliminated this entire problem if I had thought to include a single line in the column saying, "Of course I'm far from the first to deal with the subject. It's been treated many times before."
So chalk it up to a moment's unthinking oversight in leaving it out. The way it should have been handled, as I asked the minute the first question was raised, to simply be allowed to tack a shirttail onto the end of my next column and clear up whatever confusion there was. There was so little confusion on the part of most of the readers it wouldn't have taken any more than that.
KALB: Is the lesson out of this that one has to preface a column with the phrase, "Look, this idea may have been explored by other columnists over the past 200 years, but here's my turn at it." Is that what we're facing here?
JACOBY: What I am hearing back from friends at the Boston Globe that this is having a real chilling effect through the newsroom. People are walking around thinking, "If I make one tiny mistake like this, if I forget to attribute something that it didn't even occur to me needed attribution, am I going to get cut off for four months without pay?"
It's a terrible overreaction. And the Globe needs to find a way to back down.
KURTZ: Jeff Jacoby, two quick questions. A little short on time here. You were told by the editorial page Editor Renee Loth that when or if you returned after the four-month suspension there would have to be a serious rethink of your column. What do you think she meant?
JACOBY: I don't know what that means. But it's something that gives me pause. And that feeds into this whole ideological question. My politics are clearly right of center. Renee Loth, the brand new editorial page editor, has politics that are distinctly left of center. When you tell a columnist there's got to be a rethink of his column, it sends up all kinds of red flags.
KURTZ: And just briefly, given what you've been through on this, given the national publicity, given the obvious discomfort and even anger that you feel, do you plan to go back to the "Boston Globe"? Can you go back to the Boston Globe after this incident?
JACOBY: I guess in part that depends on the signals that I get back from the Globe. I'm a columnist. I like writing columns. I think I do a pretty good job. And I've been hearing from a lot of readers who are dismayed that my voice isn't on the page.
I'd like to get back. And I'd like to get back much sooner than four months.
KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. Jeff Jacoby, thanks very much for joining us.
JACOBY: Thank you.
KURTZ: Well, coming up, why milk isn't so healthy for two Florida journalists, and why O.J. -- Simpson, that is -- may become a staple of your media diet. That's next.
KURTZ: Bernie, do you think Jeff Jacoby got shafted by the Boston Globe?
KALB: The answer briefly is yes. I don't know how good a job I did concealing my sympathy for Jeff. But let me say this, if the criterion is absolute originality, I need a few days to find out whether anything original has come along since Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.
KURTZ: I think Jacoby made a mistake, no question about it. But since he was never trying to hide it, the idea that this mistake would cost him four months' pay and this kind of harsh suspension is a little hard for me to fathom.