Thursday, April 12, 2007

April 12, 2007 Edition

Couric in the Eye of Plagiarism Case

BY DAVID BLUM - Special to the Sun
April 12, 2007

For $15 million a year, wouldn't you think Katie Couric could find the time in her day to reflect on her own feelings in her Couric & Co. blog on the Web site — and not on those of a Wall Street Journal reporter named Jeffrey Zaslow?

"I still remember when I got my first library card," the April 4 Katie Couric's Notebook video blog on began. Much of what followed apparently wasn't written by Ms. Couric, but instead by a Web producer who had read Mr. Zaslow's essay about the declining use of libraries in the Internet age, published on March 15. Thanks to CBS News's own partial disclosure, we now know that her producer plagiarized significant portions of Ms. Couric's blog from Mr. Zaslow's piece. But we still don't know what Ms. Couric was so busy doing on April 4 that she needed a team of producers to figure out what was on her mind that day.

And why did CBS News fire the producer responsible, but decline to reveal the identity? In an era when plagiarists get dismissed and outed weekly by their employers at news organizations around the country, the decision by CBS News not to disclose the producer's name — and to call an act of flagrant plagiarism an "omission" — seems curious at best. According to sources within CBS News, her name is Melissa McNamara, a Web producer (and herself a blogger for who joined the network in October 2005 after working as a news assistant in the Washington bureau of the New York Times and as a researcher at CNN. Ms. McNamara couldn't be reached yesterday for comment. Asked to explain the reason for CBS News's silence about her identity, a spokeswoman said in a written statement: "We believe the matter has been dealt with appropriately and that the producer has paid the necessary price." She added that the network "quickly and decisively dealt with the issue" by posting a correction on its Web site and firing the producer.

It's no surprise to see CBS News scrambling its way out of a public-relations nightmare, and doing so in ham-handed fashion without taking any responsibility for its mistakes and embarrassments. Yesterday, a CBS Corp. director and former president of the NAACP, Bruce Gordon, told the Associated Press that he had asked the company's president and chief executive, Leslie Moonves, to fire radio host Don Imus for his recent, racist comments; so far, the company has declined to comment on its long-term plans regarding Mr. Imus, who for now faces only a two-week suspension from CBS Radio. Two years ago, in the wake of the "60 Minutes" National Guard documents fiasco, the network fired two news executives and two producers and spared the reporter involved (Dan Rather) and the executive responsible (then-president Andrew Heyward) from punishment. In this instance, Ms. Couric has declined to comment on the episode and appears unlikely to take any public responsibility for the plagiarism that she read into a camera little more than a week ago.

CBS News disclosed the plagiarism in the "Notebook" section of its Web site the night it aired, conveniently (and dishonestly) calling it a "correction." "Much of the material in the notebook came from Mr. Zaslow," the correction stated, "and we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece." It would have been fascinating to see Ms. Couric thread that needle. "Funny thing happened the other day when I was reading the Wall Street Journal piece about libraries by Jeffrey Zaslow," Ms. Couric might have begun. "Turns out I agreed with every word of it, so I'm just going to read you some of his better lines ... here we go!" Why wasn't the network straight with its Web site readers in describing what happened? It should have admitted the deception rather than pretend — by calling it a correction — that it was a mistake.

It has been standard practice for years to allow evening-news anchors — the public face of the networks — to use the services of writers and producers to draft their commentaries and essays. The fact that Ms. McNamara wrote Ms. Couric's blog wasn't itself an act of deception. But with the expansion of the blogosphere, where dueling networks routinely parlay the cult of personality into a weapon in the publicity war, it seems sad that Ms. Couric can't play the game by the same rules as her NBC counterpart Brian Williams does. Anyone who has ever read Mr. Williams's highly personal blog entries on the NBC News Web site knows he wrote them himself.

Ms. Couric's own writing skills may be part of the problem. In a blog entry written in March right after the resignation of Rome Hartman as her executive producer, Ms. Couric wrote: "[Hartman is] a man of integrity, character, and honor. In the TV news business, those characteristics are too often mutually exclusive." Perhaps she can be forgiven for not knowing what "mutually exclusive" means; she was no doubt too busy typing "indefatigability," a word she apparently made up herself to describe Mr. Hartman's work methods.

But CBS doesn't pay Ms. Couric $15 million for her writing skills; she was hired last spring to be the appealing and highly promotable public face of CBS News. Alas, so far the show has remained where it had been with Dan Rather at the helm — in third place, behind NBC and ABC. Her ratings struggles have been endlessly chronicled elsewhere and need not be rehashed. But it does seem ironic that Ms. Couric may have been too busy with her promotional duties to keep track of her own blog. Let's hope the public relations fallout from this plagiarism episode reminds Ms. Couric that foremost among her duties as anchor should be to maintain the integrity and standards of CBS News. Ms. Couric needs to take charge of her show, her blog, and her reputation before it's too late.