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Plagiarism, Perception and Reality

In a story that received a good bit of attention in the blogosphere, ESPNEWS anchor Will Selva was suspended indefinitely on Dec. 30 for plagiarism. He had introduced a story on the air about the Los Angeles Lakers, using the words of Orange County Register columnist Kevin Ding as his own, without attributing the source.

Ding called Selva out, an investigation followed, and the Worldwide Leader took swift and decisive action.

Selva apologized in a statement:

“I made a horrible mistake and I’m deeply sorry. I did not live up to my high standards or ESPN’s. I sincerely apologize for my sloppiness, especially to Kevin Ding, viewers and colleagues. In my 15 years in broadcast journalism, nothing like this has ever happened and I will make every effort to ensure it won’t happen again.”

Sounds sincere and contrite. But do you believe Selva? Suspended after it was proved he was a fraud, how can we believe “nothing like this has ever happened” before? Why should we? Because Selva’s statement is written, are we simply jumping to conclusions? Are we interpreting his tone correctly? If he was an anchor with more name recognition, would we be more inclined to believe him? Whatever the case, Selva is going to have a hard time recovering from this incident. An incident that could have been avoided if he simply said, “Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register said it best in his Sunday column…”.

Look no further than Mike Barnicle, Jayson Blair, and Judith Miller to see how the combination of plagiarism and fabricating stories has affected writers’ careers. Barnicle continued to work, and four years ago signed on as a columnist at the Boston Herald. Blair got a book deal soon after his flap at the New York Times. Miller, whose reporting on weapons of mass destruction was found to be inaccurate and worse, false, and later served jail time for her refusing to testify before a grand jury in the Valerie Plame case, has recently landed at the Conservative magazine and website Newsmax as a columnist.

Those scribes got second chances. Does Selva’s situation merit one?

The journalist in me says no. There isn’t any circumstance that should result in his reinstatement. Selva violated the most basic principle of the craft and he should be fired, not suspended. The empathic side of me, however, says yes, but that second chance isn’t deserved. It has to be earned, like a series of trials it takes to regain trust in a friend, lover or spouse who breached trust in some way.

Plagiarism is dangerous territory. I know from personal experience. I wrote a column in this space during the 2009 season where I analyzed how different beat writers were covering the same game. My goal was to show how different writers from different papers see the game through different prisms to ultimately craft similar stories. Now, I know from being in press boxes that while the writers sit in close quarters, no one is looking over anyone’s shoulder with that look that says, “Hey, what did you put down for Number 3?” Every writer is in his or her own zone, headphones in to check accuracy of quotes on the recorder, scrambling like hell to make deadline. The chorus of clickety-clacking on laptop keyboards tells you as much. Invariably, by pure coincidence, angles will be similar, certain quotes or sections of quotes will be similar, and in some cases, even certain phrases and word choices describing the action will be either similar or exact. Again, this is pure coincidence. And it’s rare that it happens.

It just so happened that in my analysis, I noticed an exact phrase appearing in different game stories from two writers representing two different papers. In jest, I wrote that one of the writers “copied off (the other writer’s) paper.” It was a regrettable choice of words on my part, and I wish like hell I could take it back. But if there’s one thing I learned in my Intro to Communication Theory class during my freshman year of college, it’s that communication of any kind is irreversible. I went for the laugh with the “copied off his paper” line; maybe I got it, maybe I didn’t. What I got was an e-mail in my personal inbox the next morning from one of the writers. I did not anticipate the content of the note, and I was stunned.

Point blank, the writer asked me if I was accusing him of plagiarism, and if I was, I’d better be ready to prove it.

Holy shit. What?

The writer didn’t know me, I didn’t know him except for his writing (he had started on the beat after I had left YES). I forwarded the note to Alex Belth and asked his counsel. Alex knew I wasn’t pointing any fingers. Why would I do that? I have tremendous respect for the local beat writers and columnists, and in my five years covering the Yankees, befriended many of them. . If I had any question regarding the content of something I’d read, I certainly wouldn’t take the writer to task in this forum. I knew I had to go into DEFCON 5 level CYA mode, but I didn’t know how to communicate that to the writer. Alex just said to be honest.

So I was. In my response, I wrote something like what I wrote in the above paragraph. I received a one-word reply: “Good.”

I don’t know if he believed me, or if he was satisfied that he made his point and scared the shit out of me. Probably a little bit of both. All I knew was that I couldn’t take back what I did, that I felt horrible for unintentionally hurting this person I’d never met, and he would likely be hawking me. Even now, I would be reluctant to introduce myself to him, if given the opportunity. If he let it go — maybe he has, maybe he hasn’t — I haven’t. We’d probably be sizing each other up, saying, “So you’re the (insert creative derogatory term here).”

Some might say, “Will, you have a guilty conscience.” I say, “No. I just don’t forget anything.” I give him credit for the way he handled the situation. I don’t know that I would have been as polite.

A plagiarism accusation hurts. If you’re the accused, be prepared to defend yourself. If you’re the accuser, in most cases, the burden of proof is on you. But also, prepared to defend yourself.

In the Ding-Selva case, it was a typical “burden of proof is on the claimant” scenario. Ding had all the leverage. He had Selva nailed. In my case, I couldn’t prove anything. I knew that, and the inadvertently accused writer knew it. I had to trust that my word would be good enough for him. To this day, I don’t know that it was.

Is Will Selva’s word good enough for you?


1 ms october   ~  Jan 7, 2011 11:03 am

good piece will, very thoughtful.

what is weird about this instance is that the plagiarized words were spoken rather than written.

i actually think plagiarism is a tricky thing. there are some instances though that are just so egregious it makes you wonder wtf?

2 Will Weiss   ~  Jan 7, 2011 11:12 am

[1] Thanks. I agree. This was the first instance I've heard of an anchor being suspended for plagiarism. It's so easily preventable, regardless of the medium. And especially now, when it's so easy to fact-check and verify information sources, how can you not expect that someone will catch you?

3 The Mick536   ~  Jan 7, 2011 1:41 pm

Frankly, if Wolfie the Blitzer didn't go into the toilet, then no one should. But that don't mean I will watch or read him again or any of the others. And, as for Judith Miller, she should ....

4 briang   ~  Jan 7, 2011 1:45 pm

nice work mr. weiss. perhaps the most interesting baseball sight is this one.

food, movies, baseball, reality, knowledge. awesome.


5 Will Weiss   ~  Jan 7, 2011 2:00 pm

[4] Thanks briang. ... Tell your friends. The door to the community is open. Wait until the season starts. Then things get REAL interesting.

6 Will Weiss   ~  Jan 7, 2011 2:01 pm

[3] Wolfie the Blitzer lost all credibility with me after his embarrassing performance on Celebrity Jeopardy! I mean, that was an egregious attack on booksmarts.

7 thelarmis   ~  Jan 7, 2011 3:05 pm

things are very different in my profession of music.

there's an old adage:

"good musicians borrow, great musicians steal!"

: )

8 Will Weiss   ~  Jan 7, 2011 4:34 pm

[7] and John Fogerty goes to litigation.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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