American Pie 20.05.05

Since the Jayson Blair scandal rocked the New York Times some two
years ago, editors here have been keeping a wary eye out for
plagiarism. Now they are seriously cracking down. In recent weeks, six
newsmen at big papers have been fired or suspended for lifting material
from other publications. At America’s largest circulation daily, USA
Today, a reporter, who had been with the paper almost since its launch,
was asked to resign after it was found that he had lifted quotes from
other newspapers without attribution – even though one of the papers,
The Indianapolis Star, belongs to the same group that owns USA Today.
He had violated the paper’s standards, said a spokesman for USA Today.
In his defence, the reporter said he had checked the quotations with
the people quoted and they were quite happy to see their comments
repeated. Another case involved a writer for The Christian Science
Monitor who was accused of lifting several paragraphs from a financial
journal called The Street. The reporter has since been banned from
writing for the paper for two years. Certain journalists here are
saying that some papers are raising standards too high. A lawyer
representing the USA Today reporter commented: “The quotes involved
were little different to television or radio sound-bites.” At the same
time, a journalism teacher at Pennsylvania State University, Prof Gene
Foreman, expressed surprise that reporters are not more careful
considering the spotlight on the media: “The gain is so minimal
compared to the risk, and the penalty is so severe.”

Meanwhile,
at the NY Times, which after the Blair scandal has appointed a
committee to improve its credibility, there are plans to change many of
the paper’s practices. They include having senior editors write more
regularly about how the paper works, tracking errors more
systematically and responding to their critics much faster.

Citing
anonymous sources should be drastically limited, the report urges, and
there should be a very clear distinction between news and opinion. One
new recommendation is that full transcripts of interviews should be
available on the paper’s website. Also, reporters and editors should be
more accessible to readers by e-mail. This comes at a time when public
confidence in the media continues to decline. A study by the Pew
Research Centre found that 45 per cent of Americans believe little or
nothing of what they read in the papers.

The Times fared
averagely, with 2l per cent of readers believing all or most of what
they read, but 14 per cent believed almost nothing.

It
has taken 28 years, but People magazine is making up for its booboo
when Elvis Presley died – it is sponsoring a TV series about the
rock-star. In August 1977, the issue that came out after Presley’s
death featured the death of comedian Marty Feldman on its cover. It was
one of the worst-selling issues in the title’s history.

By comparison, the death of John Lennon in 1980 was People’s biggest-selling issue until Princess Diana died in 1997.

Tina
Brown is giving up her TV talk show to devote her time to the printed
word. At the end of June, it will be curtains for Topic A, the
Sunday-night chat show with celebrity guests she has been hosting for
more than a year. The official reason is that she wants to devote her
time to researching the book she has been commissioned to write about
Princess Diana – for which she is reportedly being paid a whopping $2
million. Critics have been quick to point out that Topic A has never
been a runaway success. At best, it drew an average of 75,000 viewers.
And on one occasion, when the guest was acclaimed Hollywood producer
Harvey Weinstein (who also backed Brown’s ill-fated Talk magazine),
that figure dropped to a paltry 20,000.

Toby Young, the British
newsman who wrote about Tina in his bestselling book How to Lose
Friends and Alienate People (there is a sequel, The Sound of No Hands
Clapping, due in bookshops soon) had his own caustic slant on Brown’s
decision to return to print. He told the NY Post: “Writing a book about
a dead member of the royal family is a pension plan for British
journalists.”

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