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Rip-and-Read

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Last week, in yet another instance of apparent plagiarism, a veteran newspaper columnist was forced to resign after it became known that he had used paragraphs and sentences in his columns that initially appeared in other papers.

It happened here, at The Baltimore Sun, where Michael Olesker had been a respected and sometimes controversial columnist for 27 years.

When I interviewed him for a story about his resignation, he apologized. "I am sorry to say that in the course of doing those columns I unintentionally screwed up a handful of paragraphs," he said. "I am embarrassed by my sloppiness."

His "mistakes," as he called them, were nowhere near as bad as the deliberate deceptions of people like Jayson Blair at The New York Times or Jack Kelley at USA Today, both of whom made up quotes and situations and pretended to be in places they had never visited and spoken with people they had never met. They should have written novels, and left newspapering to writers dedicated to telling the truth.

What was interesting about Olesker's departure was the reaction from readers, and it told us a lot about people's cynical view of journalism.

While many readers said that Olesker deserved what he got, others asked, what's the big deal?

"I thought it was OK to put something you read into your own words," Tye Smith wrote me in an e-mail. "How many different ways can you say the same thought? I received my college degree doing such."

My response is this: Olesker didn't put something he read into his own words. He copied someone else's and pretended they were his own. There are many ways to express a thought or a fact. That's what being a good writer is all about. What students do in college is up to their own consciences.

Readers of newspapers have a right to expect that when a story or column says it was written by so-and-so, the words were indeed written by that person. We're in the truth business.

The Olesker affair also prompted calls and e-mails asking why television and radio reporters are not held to the same standard as newspaper reporters. It's a very good question. That issue has long bugged print reporters, who are accustomed to seeing and hearing their stories on the air without any credit for their paper or the people who actually did the research and the writing.

It's called "rip-and-read."

Many broadcast journalists at local stations and affiliates use material from newspapers and pretend it's their own work. They even say they have "just learned" about such-and-such, as though they had dug up something after careful and lengthy investigation, when in fact all they've done is read the morning paper.

A former TV reporter called me a couple of days ago and said, "There are zero rules in television. They steal blatantly, and they do it all the time."

Some TV reporters and anchors even steal from each other. The practice has a name -- it's called "retracking." They'll take a feed of a story from a station in another town and substitute their own voices, reading the words from someone else's script and pretending it's original reporting.

There's also the "generic live shot," in which a reporter will deliver a stand-up that is actually being beamed simultaneously to local stations all over the country. But the anchors on each of those stations pretend to their viewers that the stand-up they are seeing is "exclusive" (their favorite word) and refer to the reporter as though he or she is an employee of their own station.

It's deceptive and it's misleading, but hey, it's television.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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