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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.


True Believer

Part One of “The 10th Inning,” Ken Burn’s two-part follow up to “Baseball” aired on PBS last night. “The Bottom of the 10th” is tonight.

I reviewed the show for SI.com. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. The Yankee Dynasty is represented nicely though I’m sure most of you wanted more (and there’s no sugar-coating Ken’s allegiance to the Red Sox, though it should also be noted that co-writer, producer and director, Lynn Novick, is a Yankee fan). The focus is on the ’96 Yanks, not ’98, a fair choice in terms of drama, though they didn’t mention Frank Torre.

There’s a ton on the Sox in “The Bottom of the 10th,” but Burns is never vicious–he doesn’t show the infamous slap play by Alex Rodriguez, for instance. I’d forgotten that David Ortiz won both Games 4 and 5 in ’04, man, totally blacked that out. This was the first time I’ve watched replays. Ortizzle’s name is noticeably missing from a list of stars associated with taking PEDS (Manny’s on it).

The baseball stuff is good. Plenty to debate, of course, but that’s fun part. Jonah Keri will be pleased that the ’94 Expos made the cut. I didn’t know from Mike Barnicle before watching the show and enjoyed his talking head interviews, even if they were ham-handed in spots. Then I read up on him and feel guilty for liking him so much.

But something felt off with the filmmaking. The Florentine films style—panning and fading over still photographs–is commonly known as “The Burns Effect.” I was talking to a friend recently who said, “How can you not jump the shark after you become a pre-set on iMovie?” I get his point but the Burns style doesn’t bother me because it works. You don’t look for every artist to be innovator, after all. I wouldn’t want Elmore Leonard to be anything but Elmore Leonard.

But I’m not sure that the Burns style  is ideally suited to journalism. Nothing is more frustating than the music. In “The 8th Inning” and “The 9th Inning,” Burns used period source music as a character in the story. But here, over and over again, I was distracted by the music selections. I thought they got in the way of the story. Most of the tracks aren’t bad pieces of music on their own, but they just don’t have much to do with the topic at hand. And they have nothing to do with what was on the radio at the time.

Burns does use James Brown and Tower of Power. This record from The Incredible Bongo Band opens the show:

P.E. and The Beastie Boys and the White Stripes are used but otherwise, there’s too much smooth jazz and strumming guitars, where songs like “Nothing Shocking,” by Jane’s Addiction or the Red Hot Chili Peppers version of “Higher Ground,” or any number of radio hits would have been interesting choices. There’s cool cuts from the Red Garland Trio and Wynton Marsalis, but Burns misses out on using Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” in the Mariano Rivera segment, an oversight than can only be excused by budget considerations And even when music choices work thematically like with David Bowie’s “Fame,” they are obvious, not to mention dated.

But that’s me. And I expect fireworks from Burns and company every time out. Still, “The 10th Inning” is certainly worth watching.

I’m curious to know what you think. Charlie Pierce weighed in this morning, and here is the Times’ review (which borders on being mean).

Oh, and over at Deadspin, dig this memoir piece I wrote about working for Burns back in the spring of 1994:

Ken got a kick out of turning people on to the things that moved him. When Willie Morris appeared in episode five of Baseball, talking about listening to games on the radio, I asked Ken who he was, and that was my introduction to Morris and his classic memoir, North Toward Home. I found a copy immediately and the book made a lasting impression on me. Ken was an avid music fan and hipped me to Lester Young and Booker T and the M.G.’s. During our car ride north, I tried to get him to dig some rap records — I remember playing him “Passin’ Me By” by the Pharcyde — but he couldn’t get past the lack of melody. Then, he took out a cassette and played what he called the best version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was Marvin Gaye, singing at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and Ken was right.

[Photo Credit: J. Parthum]

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