Archive for March, 2010

Reporters should dig into Norton’s plagiarism

Friday, March 26th, 2010

I’m supposed to watching the media, but Denver Post reporter Lynn Bartels puts me to shame.

She can not only “half listen” to CNN from the “other room” but, at the same time, recognize that someone is saying something on CNN that Jane Norton said during a speech over six months ago.

As she reported on The Post’s blog, The Spot, Bartels heard Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) use a quotation that came from Norton’s mouth when Norton launched her senatorial campaign Sept. 15.

But there was one big difference. Rodgers properly attributed the quotation to former President Gerald Ford. And Norton did not.

Norton said, “I believe a government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government that’s big enough to take everything you have.”

Ford said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

Bartels’ discovery of this was pretty impressive, but her blog post didn’t offer any perspective on whether this is plagiarism on Norton’s part.

Journalists should take plagiarism ultra seriously, right, since some of them get fired for doing it. Not to mention the fact that plagiarist isn’t a skill we’re looking for in our future elected officials.

So I emailed a leading poobah in field of journalism ethics, Robert Steele, to find out whether Norton’s apparent act of plagiarism should, in fact, be considered plagiarism and what would happen to a journalist who did what Norton did.

Prof. Steele is the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute and the Director of the Jane Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University.

Here’s what he wrote:

If one uses a common understanding of plagiarism — using the specific words or nearly exact thoughts of someone else and claiming them as your original writing or thoughts — then Norton’s use of this quote falls into that category.

My guess is that many politicians have used a variation of this phrase over the years to capture an ideological position about the role of government in our society. If Norton had just taken the broad concept and stated it in her own words, she might have been OK. For instance, if she said something like, “A government that gives can take. We should be wary of big government that promises too much and makes us pay back all we receive,” she would have made her point (albeit with a less resounding quote) and avoided the plagiarism trap.

Given her use of the exact wording, Norton should have attributed the phrase to Ford (assuming he was the originator of the phrase and didn’t borrow it himself from someone else). 

If a journalist used this same exact phrase without attribution, I would want to know how it happened. I would ask the journalist how and why she/he used that phrase and why it wasn’t attributed. I would also check other work produced by that journalist to see if there are other problems with attribution. I would discipline the journalist based on the extent and reason for the failure in this case and whether the journalist has a history of plagiarism. That discipline could range from a serious reprimand to a suspension to dismissal.

In this case, I would ask Norton some questions. How did this happen? Did you write this speech? If so, where did you get that line? If not, who wrote the speech and/or that line? Perhaps one of her speech writers did this. Norton, as the person who used the words is still primarily responsible, of course. I would also do some plagiarism checking of her other speeches to see if this is a recurring problem.

I made certain that Steele saw that Norton’s words weren’t exactly the same as Ford’s.

“Norton’s words are very, very close to the exact wording of the Ford quote and her expression of this thought is almost verbatim to Ford’s expression,” he wrote back.  “Norton should have attributed the statement to Ford. By not doing so, she claimed it as her original thought. That’s wrong.”

Even if you don’t agree with Steele, you’d still want to hear more from Norton about the Ford quote, given that she wants to be Colorado’s U.S. Senator.

Reporters should follow up with her, along the lines Steele suggests: How did this happen? Has it happened before? What have you done to stop it from happening again?

A politician can commit plagiarism and be forgiven, perhaps more easily than a professional writer. Look at Joe Biden. But it’s up to reporters to take Norton’s transgression much more seriously. Get all the facts on the table, and let us decide.

The more critical questioning the better

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Needless to say, interviews are much more fun and useful if reporters try to correct candidates, repeatedly if necessary, if they have their facts mixed up.

So you have to appreciate Cynthia Hessin’s discussion with Scott McInnis on a special edition of Colorado State of Mind March 11. (Colorado State of Mind airs Fridays at 7:30 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS, Channel 6.)

On the show, McInnis said that Colorado’s economy is in bad shape and that the “wrong thing to do” is raise taxes. He said he opposed the “tax increases” passed this session by the lawmakers. Hessin made McInnis explain why he thought they were “tax increases.”

Hessin (at 13:50): To be clear, as a matter of procedure, these are lifting exemptions that these companies had, as opposed to imposing new taxes.

McInnis: No, these are new taxes. Now anytime you move money from the private marketplace to the government, that’s a tax increase.

Hessin: So you’re talking movement of money.

McInnis: They paint a pretty face on it. They like to say, well, it’s a loophole. We’re closing a loophole. Or we’re taxing the rich.

Hessin: By letter of law, that is what they’re doing, right?

McInnis: No it’s not. The way you define it, I think they are all tax increases. They are taking jobs out of the private marketplace to protect jobs in government. That’s exactly what’s happening with those 13 bills.

Hessin’s multiple follow-up not only makes for an interesting interview, but it also forced McInnis to clarify his position on the matter. In fact, Hessin was on solid ground here in describing the legislature’s actions as “lifting exemptions” rather than imposing “new taxes.” That is, if you accept a related decision by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Earlier in this interview, however, Hessin could have pressed McInnis harder, and also had the facts on her side.

McInnis said Colorado’s new oil-and-gas regulations have wounded Colorado’s economy, resulting in “thousands of jobs” leaving the state. He said Colorado’s oil-and-gas jobs moved to Pennsylvania, Texas, Wyoming, and Kentucky.

McInnis said: “The impact [of the oil and gas regulations] to the state as a whole was severe. We’ve lost a lot of jobs. We’ve lost thousands of jobs. These are 80,000-dollar-a-year jobs. The natural gas companies have left in groves. Now, you still have Encana and Williams and others that still have intense capital investment in the ground.  If you went to Grand Junction right now, you’d see 20 rigs sitting in storage yards. I mean, it’s had a huge impact.”

It’s now well-established that Colorado’s new oil-and-gas regulations cannot be blamed any job losses, much less “thousands of jobs,” as McInnis asserts, even though the oil industry has been making this assertion since before the regulations were passed. Hessin should have called McInnis on this.

We’ll be seeing more candidate interviews as the election gets closer…-and candidate profiles. The more critical questioning and reporting the better.

ColoradoSenateNews corrects itself

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

The website posted a piece yesterday titled, “Measure to save local governments money defeated by Democrat-controlled committee.”

Contrary to what the headline says, the measure would actually have resulted in a letter being sent to Congress asking the EPA to review a bill–again.

Not much money saved by local governments in that.

But here’s the strange part.

The ColoradoSenateNews piece quotes Sen. Ted Harvey as saying, “In a time of economic scarcity, this measure would really have helped keep the cost of local water projects affordable and saved taxpayers’ money.”

Then, in the next paragraph, ColoradoSenateNews contradicts its own headline, and Harvey’s statement, by explaining what the resolution would have actually done.

“Senate Joint Resolution 18, sponsored by Sen. Ted Harvey, would have asked Congress to encourage the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider an appropriation bill that put retroactive Davis Bacon requirements on water projects.”

As a journalist, you don’t want to regurgitate a quote containing misinformation–unless you correct the quoted statement. In this case, ColoradoSenateNews set Harvey–and its own inaccurate headline–straight.

Despite its name, may not qualify as a journalistic entity, but in this case, it sort of acted like one. Afflicted with schizphrenia, that is.


News release vs. interview

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

The day after reading that Republican Ken Buck reportedly thinks Jane Norton has a “lack of comfort discussing campaign issues with reporters,” I opened up the up-and-coming Denver Daily News and found a few hundred words from Jane Norton, beginning with this paragraph:

“It’s questionable which is more insulting: Senator Bennet’s hypocrisy on earmark reform or the fact that Republicans joined him to help kill this commonsense measure,” said Norton.

This looked quite articulate, and there was no indication that the statement came from a news release or other form of controlled campaign communication. So I emailed Denver Daily News Staff Writer Peter Marcus, who wrote the piece, and asked if he had interviewed Norton.

He replied that Norton’s words were extracted from a news release and that he usally does state when comments come from a news release.

The source of a quote (interview vs. news release) is important info for readers who may want to know if a reporter has had the opportunity to challenge a interviewee and follow up with critical questions.

Marcus wrote me: “I haven’t personally had trouble speaking with [Norton]. In fact, on caucus night, she was very available, and Nate, her communications director, has worked with me to get her on the phone.”

That’s good news, because it’s in the public interest for reporters to have access to candidates, Democrat and Republican, and to talk to them. And if they don’t have access, they should tell us about it.

It’s good to hear that the Denver Daily News is getting access and using it. With fewer media outles covering breaking political news, the Denver Daily News‘ original content has become an important part (and getting more so) of the local media scene.

What happened to Peter Blake?

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Note:  During the year, I’ll be asking former Denver journalists what they’ve been up to since disappearing from the Denver journalism scene…-and what they think of the state of Colorado journalism these days. I previously queried Bob Ewegen and Jim Spencer.

Peter Blake was a reporter and then a political columnist at the Rocky Mountain News.

I started at the Rocky in August 1968.  I applied first at the Post, but it had no opening, so I went to the Rocky, where Mike Howard had just taken over as city editor.  I was his first hire.
 I left in May 2007.  The News offered a buyout to 20 people, and since I was 71 and the paper was losing money, I knew I’d never get a better offer than that.  I freelanced a weekly column for the Rocky subsequently, during legislative and campaign seasons.  The last one appeared in the penultimate issue in February 2009.

I have not worked in journalism since, but am looking at opportunities. Of course I am sad to see only one major daily still publishing in Denver, and it seems to prove the rule that newspapers need competition to flourish.  The lack of advertising means the space available for news and opinion is being squeezed.  But there’s no point in looking back. Web sites abound — some of them produced by my former colleagues at the paper — and since there is still a demand for news, some may prosper.  Or at least survive.

Off-camera comments should be reported

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Here’s proof that TV journalism shouldn’t start and stop when the camera rolls.

Denver FOX 31 correspondent Eli Stokols quoted an “off camera” comment by U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck Thursday.

You don’t see TV reporters quoting off-camera discussions with newsmakers often enough, and by not doing so, they’ve gotta be withholding a ton of material that should be aired in the public interest.

In this case, Stokols of Fox 31, reported that U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck “openly questioned [his opponent Jane Norton’s] ability to hold up under the scrutiny of the media and noted her apparent lack of comfort discussing campaign issues with reporters and at candidate forums.”

According to Stokols, Buck said, “Can you imagine her against Romanoff in a debate? That’d be like tennis with the net down.”

Give Stokols credit for putting this comment into the public record.

The Denver Post quotes Norton directly!

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

After 23 quoteless weeks, The Denver Post ran a direct quotation from Jane Norton today.

Norton’s quoted words, which appear to have traveled from the Senate candidate’s mouth into reporter Lynn Bartels’ ears, in a two-way conversation, were first these:

“Coloradans are incredibly passionate because the direction of the country is wrong. The overreach of the federal government is absolutely unprecedented.”

And then these:

“I am a conservative. That’s who I’ve always been.”

The Post’s article referred to Norton’s newsworthy statements of late–shadowy stuff that should have been in the newspaper previously, but was left out.

For the first time, The Post reported that Norton called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and that she accused the Obama administration of caring more about the rights of terrorists than the lives of American citizens. It also mentioned her proposal to eliminate the Department of Education, which The Post had already reported but which her spokesman previously refused to discuss with The Post because he was asked about it on a “holiday,” 

That’s a huge step forward. Now Post reporters should query Norton about her basis for believing these things–and her other extreme ideas, including her reported support of a flat tax or national sales tax, which would amount to a major overall of the U.S. tax code.

The Post should ask where Norton how her thinking evolved on these issues.

Today’s Post article pointed out that Norton and the GOP Senate contenders are “driving as far to the right as possible in hopes of rallying the base and appealing to the Tea Partyers.” While some think Norton, who openly attacks Planned Parenthood, is trying to hide her right-wing beliefs, The Post’s article today argued that Norton “has to battle the perception she’s the establishment candidate.” This perception is fueled by her support from “powerul D.C.-lobbyist brother in law Charlie Black and others in the capital,” including Sen. John McCain, today’s Post article stated.




Were the mum ones contacted?

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

I’ve been lambasting The Denver Post for not talking directly with Colorado Senate Candidate Jane Norton.

And I was ready to lambast The Post again this afternoon, after reading its coverage of last night’s caucuses and the Colorado Senate race. Neither Jane Norton nor Michael Bennet were directly interviewed.

Instead, The Post’s article stated that U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton’s quote came from “prepared remarks.” And Michael Bennet’s quote came from “a release.”

This was a major political event–and you’d expect The Post to interview the major candidates directly or–at least–to tell us that the candidates declined a request to be interviewed.

But I asked Post reporter John Ingold, who wrote the caucus article along with Jessica Fender, about the story, and his response provides a window into the complicated world that reporters operate in–versus the simplistic one occupied sometimes by a media critic.

Both Jessica and I tried last night to get live comments from the candidates themselves. (It was a bit of a complicated process because we needed comments for the first-edition story before results were in, then we needed new quotes for the final-edition story after results were released.)

 In the mini-chaos of the evening …• both for us and the candidates …• we weren’t always able to get direct quotes. I can’t say for the candidates we didn’t speak to whether that was a conscious choice on their part, but we ultimately felt it was better to use prepared statements from the candidates themselves rather than live comments from their spokespeople. Of course we would much, much rather speak directly to the candidates. 

As for why we didn’t say that we tried and failed to get live comments from the candidates, I didn’t feel it was worth the space in the story to make that point. We had only 25 inches to cover a lot of ground on three significant contests, and we had to do it on a tight deadline. To the extent readers are inclined to draw a distinction between direct comments and prepared statements, I think the story provided them with enough detail to do so.

So in this light, I can see why the controlled information by Bennet and Norton (statements and news releases) was used in the newspaper, and the approach makes sense. I also understand why Ingold and Fender did not write that the candidates “declined comment.” It sounds like the candidates never really declined the interview request, but neither did they make themselves available. So the reporters went with what they had. That’s what happens on deadline. Ingold rightfully didn’t want to speculate about the candidates’ motives, but it looks like they were just manipulating deadline-driven journos.

The Post’s piece on the caucuses and the Senate race last night did include direct quotes from Ken Buck, Andrew Romanoff, pollster Floyd Ciruli, and political analyst Steve Welchert.

It’s still a mystery to me why The Post hasn’t quoted Norton, directly in a two-way conversation, in 23 weeks. Her releases and spokespeople have been quoted in 13 articles.

But I’m thinking this will change as the campaign gets going.

Bennett has been quoted directly, about campaign matters, in 12 articles in a two-way conversation with reporters during the same period, with his last quote on campaign matters appearing seven weeks ago. His releases and spokespeople have been quoted in 12 articles.

Andrew Romanoff has been quoted directly in 13 articles, and three quotes have appeared from releases and spokespeople.



Breaking news not

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

I’ve gotten some dumb “breaking news” items from The Denver Post over the years, but one of today’s “breaking-news” emails was up there among the dumbest.

The subject was, “Breaking News: GOP assails Dems on approach to health bill”

Here’s the text:

WASHINGTON…-Republicans are assailing Democrats over their plans to push massive health care legislation through the House without a direct vote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that “anyone who endorses this strategy will be forever remembered for trying to claim they didn’t vote for something they did.”


If that’s breaking news, then what isn’t?

Why a candidate’s $487 trip to an “appearance coach” should be considered news

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

The Scott McInnis campaign forks out $487 to an “appearance coach,” who reportedly advises McInnis to shave off his mustache and update his glasses, and it barely makes a blip of news.

Is this a sign of good journalism or cynical passivity on behalf of the Colorado media?

When the appearance-coach story broke last month, I first thought it was the former…-a sign that maybe journalists were moving away from blowing up meaningless symbols into eyeball-grabbing news stories.

But now I’m thinking Colorado journalists let us down on this one.

I definitely thought it would be big local news when I first heard about it. Look what it had going for it, in terms of newsworthiness:

First, the expenditure was clearly listed on McInnis’ campaign finance reports.

It was also high on the infotainment index…-involving hair, something we can all relate to. McInnis’ appearance coach was Denver native Patti Shyne, whose company name, “You’ve Been Shyned,” could have been invented in Hollywood. Her homepage states: “Within the realm of physical presentation, Patti understands the delicate symbiosis between vulnerability and confidence.”

McInnis’ visit to “You’ve Been Shyned” was paid by the McInnis campaign, not by McInnis’ personal funds, so there’s a public-interest benefit, for potential McInnis donors, in reporting where McInnis is spending campaign donations, especially if expenditures seem unusual or unnecessary.

And, of course, journalists are paid to present clues about the authenticity of political candidates and their judgment on money matters. Strange or exorbitant campaign expenditures could foreshadow crazy spending of tax money.

But despite these newsworthy elements, there weren’t any news stories about McInnis’ visit to You’ve Been Shyned…-or at least almost none that took the Patti Shyne issue seriously. Even local TV news largely snoozed through this made-for-TV story.

The more I’ve thought about this story, the more I’m convinced it should have been taken seriously by journalists, with different views presented.

And McInnis himself should have been asked about it.

The Denver Post didn’t run anything in its print edition, choosing to post a piece on its blog, The Spot. While informative, this light-hearted post didn’t get at the authenticity or judgment issues involved. Emblematic of the approach was The Post’s query of Shyne regarding what advice she’d give to McInnis’ opponent John Hickenlooper. (She said Hick’s haircut and clothes still need help.) Later, the Spot ran a piece about ProgressNow’s lampoon of the McInnis’ mini-makeover, which the liberal group called the “McLobbyist Makeover.” (The Post ran a short story about McInnis’ mustache removal in January before the news of his $487 excursion to Shyne leaked out in February.)

The news void about McInnis’ $487 trip to the appearance coach contrasts with the avalanche of coverage Presidential candidate John Edwards endured in 2007, when he got not one but two $400 haircuts. Major media outlets across the country weighed in. As one story in the Washington Post put it in a story about Edwards, testifying to the public’s sensitivity to these issues, “the political damage was immediate.”

I know, Edwards was a presidential candidate whose hair was a lightning rod, and McInnis is a Colorado candidate with less of it, but still, his mustache had already made news and the public-interest issues involved are the same.

Post columnist Fred Brown, who’s written extensively on media issues, told me he thought The Post made the right news decision to place the story on its blog:  “This is the perfect kind of thing to report in the new media, and maybe old media are moving away from it,” he told me. “It’s campaign trivia, sort of insider news, more than big picture stuff…-although lord knows there’s plenty of crap that ends up in the mainstream media.”

Like Brown, Jennifer Duffy, political editor at The Cook Political Report, says that candidates work with appearance coaches all the time…-so there’s not much new here.

Advice from an appearance coach doesn’t normally show up as a specific line item on a public campaign expense report, Duffy said, so we usually don’t know for sure how much is paid for this campaign activity.

“Usually, it’s passed to one of your consultants,” she said. “And then you and I aren’t having this conversation. ” 

To my way of thinking, that’s all the more reason Denver reporters should have jumped all over the McInnis-Shyne story, even if the dollars involved are small by campaign standards.

It’s the kind of activity that many candidates don’t want the public to see, and when it trickles out, candidates should be held accountable.

So when evidence crosses a reporter’s desk that a candidate spent $487 on an appearance coach, journalists shouldn’t get lost in their cynicism and accept it as part of normal campaigning.

I mean, maybe this is actually something that distinguishes Hick from McInnis, and voters want to know about the judgment and priorities reflected in this small, but certainly significant, decision.  In other words, reporters have no business assuming that all candidates do this, just because most candidates apparently do.

Journalists should also look at the situation from the perspective of your average citizen. Do they understand the world where paying $487 for an appearance coach is, according to Duffy, not a bad price? I don’t think so, and it’s up to reporters to illuminate this world.

It’s not too late for a reporter to ask Scott McInnis about his trip to see Patti Shyne.