Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Katie Couric needs to think for herself—literally

Posted by metaphorical on 17 April 2007

Katie Couric was “horrified” to learn last week that the thoughts in her head were written by someone else.

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s hard to know what else to make of the Couric plagiarism fiasco. As the LA Times noted yesterday, the story was overshadowed last week by the Imus fiasco, but the blogverse won’t let the story go, and rightly so. Revealingly, both are CBS fiascos, and the question some bloggers and pundits are raising now is what the hell is going on at the third-rate network. There are also some deeper, second-day questions being raised about Couric herself and her “Notebook” commentaries.

In case you, like I, overlooked the Couric scandal in favor of the Imus one, let’s get up to speed.

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post was first on the story. On 11 April he reported that

Katie Couric did a one-minute commentary last week on the joys of getting her first library card, but the thoughts were less than original. The piece was substantially lifted from a Wall Street Journal column.

CBS News apologized for the plagiarized passages yesterday and said the commentary had been written by a network producer who has since been fired.

The CBS anchor “was horrified,” spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said. “We all were.”

By the time Kurtz reported it, CBS had already withdrawn the material and apologized. In a remarkable bit of spin, though, rather than apologize that the material had been plagiarized, it apologized for omitting to cite Zaslow and the WSJ.

In an Editor’s Note posted online and distributed to CBS stations, the network said “much of the material” in the library commentary came from Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, “and we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece. We offer our sincere apologies for the omission.”

It’s hard to picture how that would work. “Most of Katie’s personal reflections to follow are actually the ruminations of Jeffrey Zaslow, as already published by the Wall Street Journal” is something that her fans would probably find a bit puzzling.

Crediting Zaslow for giving Couric an idea for a commentary is something that one can do, and crediting him for researching some facts is as well. Plagiaristic copying isn’t. Kurtz cited three exact or nearly-exact rip-off quotes. Here’s the first one.

Much of the rest of the script was stolen from the Journal. Couric said: “For kids today, the library is more removed from their lives. It’s a last-ditch place to go if they need to find something out.”

Zaslow wrote in March: “The library is more removed from their lives. It’s a last-ditch place to go if they need to find something out.”

Digital Journal pointed out a total of five. That’s an awful lot of plagiarism for one minute of audio.

Of course, besides the plagiarism, there’s the intellectual dishonesty of someone else writing Couric’s first-person commentary. In principle, that’s not a big deal. But in this case, the first person involves an actual reminiscence.

What made the ripoff especially striking was the personal flavor of a video — now removed from the CBS Web site — that began, “I still remember when I got my first library card, browsing through the stacks for my favorite books.”

Timothy Noah did a terrific job of analyzing what’s wrong with that last week in Slate.

I’m hardly the first to point out the risible irony in CBS News firing Web producer Melissa McNamara for passing off as her own work a commentary she ghosted for Katie Couric that borrowed extensively from a March 15 Wall Street Journal column by Jeffrey Zaslow. From a strictly narrow perspective, of course, CBS was justified in firing McNamara. The network paid her to write original essays for Katie Couric to read in video and audio clips made available on its Web site and to CBS-owned radio stations. McNamara deceived CBS by plagiarizing the Journal. But CBS News wronged visitors to its Web site by inviting them to think that the opinions Couric expressed in these commentaries were her own. It’s no special knock on Couric; before Couric, Dan Rather regularly recited commentaries on the radio that were written by others, and Walter Cronkite did the same before him.

The deception was a little more conspicuous in this instance, at least retrospectively, because it began with a personal memory: “I still remember when I first got my library card.” That sentence was not lifted from the Zaslow column, but it’s actually more fake than anything else in the commentary because it purports to be a personal recollection. In fact, however, it is McNamara remembering on Couric’s behalf the time she toddled up to the library, filled out a form, and was handed her very own library card. It’s a safe counterfeit because every kid gets a library card. Getting one is a rite of passage, and therefore everybody ends up remembering it.

What offends Noah is essentially the banality of Couric’s commentaries, an element inherent to the process of having them ghost-written.

But the banality doesn’t end with inplanted memories. There’s the banality of underreported stories. On 12 April, presumably after McNamara was fired, “Couric’s ‘Notebook’ rehashed debunked Obama rumors,” reported the watchdogs at Media Matters (who also have the full video on that page).

In the April 12 edition of her “Notebook” video blog, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric asked, “Is America ready to elect a president who grew up praying in a mosque?” and proceeded to repeat debunked rumors surrounding Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) childhood years in Indonesia.

Couric claimed that Obama’s “background sparked rumors that he had studied at a radical madrassa, or Quranic school — rumors his campaign denied, declaring that Obama is now a practicing Christian.” However, in noting simply that Obama’s campaign “denied” the rumors that he attended a madrassa, Couric ignored the fact that these allegations have been thoroughly debunked.

As if being part of the media echo-chamber weren’t banal enough, Couric and her thought-production machine were late to the story and missed the fact that it was fabricated to begin with.

There’s no question that these rumors, which date back to mid-March, are false, and were found very quickly to be false. by 20 March, Media Matters was able to report that “The story was quickly debunked by CNN and later by the Associated Press and ABC.” And on 25 March, it cited a Chicago Tribune story that advanced the debunking even further.

In an April 12th column in the NY Sun, David Blum connects the scandal up with the 2004 Dan Rather scandal, which also involved poor research reported by an anchor personality who couldn’t be bothered to make sure of the facts that he was reading to a few million listeners.

As Blum notes,

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.

Or, we could just we could just say “no” to the Katie Couric’s of the world, and get our news from people who have an understanding of it, and can articulate it, instead of merely read it.

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20 Responses to “Katie Couric needs to think for herself—literally”

  1. Katie Couric needs to think for herself—literally

  2. Your post is a succinct recap of the case. I have a few more points on my blog, including that the NY Post reported the CBS producer has a twin who did the same thing. Also, more about how CBS is handling the Obama mistakes. hightechparent.blogspot.com

    Thanks for continuing the dialogue.

  3. digglahhh said

    ESPN is perhaps Babe Ruth of this phenomenon. I know this is just sports news, but to the hardcore sports fan, the instruction to get your news from those who understand it and not those who just read it, certainly pertains.

    Most recently, ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd (won’t dignify him by looking up the spelling), urged his listeners to crash thebiglead.com, a popular (WordPress) sports blog. TBL called him out in the past for re-iterating a piece, almost verbatim, that was originally posted on M-Zone, a Michigan University Football blog. The ESPN-listening sheep did as told and crashed the site, shutting down TBL for 48 hours.

    ESPN hi-jacks material and, to add insult to injury, often mocks the type of writing and analysis that actually appear on many of the sites they have pillaged in the past.

    In addition, ESPN claims to “break” stories regardless or whether or not they are anywhere close to being the first to report it. Their defense is basically that their “breaking” of the news marks when the story becomes “official.” Basically, their defense is that it is not really news, or officially confirmed until we announce it. Convenient, huh…

    Anyway,

    It’s hard to picture how that would work. “Most of Katie’s personal reflections to follow are actually the ruminations of Jeffrey Zaslow, as already published by the Wall Street Journal” is something that her fans would probably find a bit puzzling.

    That almost made me spit out my tea.

  4. J Slothower, what a great blog. I made the address into a link in the hopes that people will follow it.

  5. “Or, we could just we could just say “no” to the Katie Couric’s of the world, and get our news from people who have an understanding of it, and can articulate it, instead of merely read it.”

    Thank you for that comment. Can’t say it any better than that.

  6. […] View original post here: metaphorical […]

  7. I have a similar attitude toward shenanigans like these, but I have to say it hasn’t been clear to me just how guilty Couric is, notwithstanding that she’s a risible airhead.

    That the piece was plagiarized is unquestionable, but that isn’t really what everyone’s worked up about. As you point out, it’s that there’s such a stench of sleazy fakery to it that it seems worse than “mere” copying. But is that accusation fair?

    I have never seen a full transcript of the piece. The only quotes I’ve seen, aside from the bit about the library card, are not in the first person – and the library card line was not plagiarized. If she really did deliver a piece purporting to be first-person memories throughout, and it was cribbed, that’s egregious dishonesty on top of the plagiarism. But if all she did was say that she remembers getting her library card, and then deliver a short essay on the importance of libraries, that doesn’t strike me as dishonest (again bracketing the plagiarism bit). As far as I can tell, that is what she did. If the discussion of libraries did not purport to be first-person, then she cannot be held responsible for faking her memories of the matter in question, and since the memory of getting her library card was not cribbed and was presumably accurate, she can’t be faulted for that either.

    What about it being ghostwritten? I don’t have a problem with that at all. I do think it’s unfortunate that we no longer have public figures who can speak coherently in their own voices, but the days of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and FDR are gone. It’s long been understood that the things public figures – from politics, journalism, and the media – say are written for them. All you have to do is listen to any formal speech by Ronald Reagan, George Bush I, or, God help us, George Bush II, to note the vast gulf between their ability to express other people’s words (Shrub can barely do that) and their ability to express their own. I would hardly expect Katie Couric to rise to a higher level of eloquence. And, that being the case, speechwriting – something that would have been regarded as akin to saying someone else’s prayers for them even 100 years ago – has become a recognized medium in its own right. Assuming Couric really does remember getting her own library card, I don’t think someone else writing that down for her to read is dishonest by contemporary standards – it’s just the only way we can expect Couric to be able to tell us about it. (I really hope you’re not making a plea for Katie Couric to do more extemporaneous speaking right from her heart. Christ, spare us.)

    So, while this incident certainly points up a lot of what is absurd about corporate media, I’m not sure that this case is anything more than plagiarism plain and simple, or any worse than other examples of such lapses. Our expectations for honesty, personal veracity, and expressive ability in media talking heads have fallen so low that even Katie Couric cannot violate them.

  8. digglahhh said

    That’s twice in one day…

  9. digglahhh said

    I really hope you’re not making a plea for Katie Couric to do more extemporaneous speaking right from her heart. Christ, spare us.

    I had meant to include this comment, which I also found highly amusing.

  10. Blue Athena said

    So this is the second Couric post I’ve read here and I’ve been trying to figure out just what this reaction is that I have each time. And I think there are 2 components:

    1) stop banging your head against the wall. The people who get their news from Katie Couric are going to get it someplace of an equivalent intellectual level if she goes away. If all news is raised to a higher level, they will stop watching/reading the news. And no, there wasn’t a time when people were better educated and more knowledgeable.

    2) If you’re trying to reclaim the old prestige of the journalist role, again, head banging. It’s not going to happen and I think you might want to look carefully at what your own interests are in this issue and how much time you want to waste on an unsalvagable cause.

    3) Oh, I don’t know….just leave Katie alone. I nothing about her, but given that it’s hopeless, just let the poor woman be and let her entertain the folks she entertains.

  11. There seems to be some thought that she may have written the first line, which would fit in with Kevin’s “defense.” I don’t see how it makes it much better though; it’s just as banal, for one thing. The line in question is, “I still remember when I first got my library card.” Noah says,

    every kid gets a library card. Getting one is a rite of passage, and therefore everybody ends up remembering it. Or so it is presumed.

    He then points out that his own experience was quite different from the norm. (By the way, mine was too, though in just the opposite way from was.) Couric provides none of the detail that would evoke that moment for each of us, even if our personal experience were different from hers. It’s just bad, banal writing, regardless of who wrote it.

    In the Couric fiasco, many commentators have contrasted Brian Williams and his blog, which, everyone says, is obviously written by him. I haven’t seen people mention Keith Olbermann and his Murroweque rants, but whether you love them or hate them (I happen to love them) he obviously writes them.

    Now, I don’t mind that Couric doesn’t write her commentaries, for the reasons that both Kevin and Athena give. But there’s still a difference. For the articles that my magazine publishes with the bylines of expert articles, we staff editors start with the author’s draft and revise and revise, and many many of the words are not the author’s. And in a couple of cases, we’ve actually ghostwritten the first draft and then the author revises, and they we go through several rounds of revision. But either way, there’s a give-and-take, and the bylined author has struggled with each word and sentence and paragraph and approved the words he or she didn’t original draft in a meaningful way. Couric is just reading.

    Which gets us to Athena’s point; in effect, “Just let her read”. I think that would be fine. In the UK, the newsreaders are actually called “newsreaders” and that’s how it works. But they’re not paid $15 million, they’re not asked to give commencement addresses, they dont’ go the Academy Awards or the White House. I think the anchors here are in effect taking credit for far more than they do—in particular the mistaken idea that they write the words they read.

    If Couric wants to take a $14.8 million cut in salary and kiss her celebrity status goodbye, then by all means she can just read the words of others all day long without a single complaint from me. I’m just not a fan of letting her have it both ways.

  12. digglahhh said

    I agree with the last part of your post, Meta. The real plagiarism here is how people like Couric are able to capitalize from being the face that is associated with the work. These people are considered experts and influential voices. If they were not able to harness this status by virtue of simple association and limited understanding of the news process by the public, I’d feel a lot better about people like Couric.

    This is like the Borat skit (Ali G Show, not the movie) in which he thinks that Ronald McDonald is the CEO of McDonalds.

  13. Not to divert the thread, but, Digglahhh [I’m with Meta – you’re going to have to explain that], there is nothing so stupid that some corporation won’t do it.

    he thinks that Ronald McDonald is the CEO of McDonalds.

    “Uncle Ben” now is the (supposed) CEO of Uncle Ben’s Rice. I shit you not.

  14. Blue Athena said

    Meta, digglahhh,

    OK, I will plead ignorance here. Could you guys find me a convincing example of someone who considers Katie Couric an “expert and influential voice”. And once you’ve found that example, please go a step further and find another example example (because I doubt it will be your first one) where this sample person actually has an IQ over about 95 and any hope of ever formulating intelligent opinions.

    I just think you guys are worrying about relatively non-existent people. I’m pretty sure the group that thinks Katie Couric is an expert is both smaller and far more hopelessly stupid than you believe. (This is a different question altogether than whether she should be considered a “journalist”, btw).

    Wrt my earlier post, I actually meant something far more cynical than “just let her read”.

  15. Katie Couric To Deliver Williams College Commencement Address

    I mentioned commencements; she’s delivering the one at Williams College this year.

    Last year, she was paid $110,000 for giving the commencement at my father’s alma mater, the University of Oklahoma.

    She donated the money to charity—more power to her. But $110,000 is a lot of respect to someone’s voice, regardless of what’s done with the money.

  16. Blue Athena said

    So does your father consider Couric an expert? If so, in what?

    I just checked with the only Williams grad I have handy, and while she laughed at the “expert in international affairs” suggestion, she said Couric appeared to be an “expert in making money and becoming famous” (paraphrased). So, 100% of my exhaustive survey says…

    Heck, I’d take Vanna White’s advice on making money, and I don’t think anyone has argued she’s an expert on much. And I’d love to hear William Hung’s advice on making money with though utter lack of singing expertise. In fact, I’d pay for some good advice in this area.

    I don’t think making someone a commencement speaker signifies more than wanting a name on the invitations. But in reality, most of the parents in attendance wouldn’t mind their kids following Couric’s path. And I doubt it would matter much to them if the kid showed expertise, as much as that they brought home the millions.

  17. Blue Athena said

    OK, I have to say it…Barbara Bush. I mean really…she was a name. I don’t care how quotable the Wellesley speech was (which I doubt she wrote or anyone even thought she wrote). She was picked as a name and not because anyone even remotely thought she had any expertise.

  18. Well, my father is no longer with us. I don’t think he’d have been happy about it.

    As for Barbara Bush, (1) she was the First Lady at the time, (2) there were protests because she still wasn’t considered serious enough:

    In 1990, Barbara Bush was asked to speak at Wellesley College, sparking an unexpected reaction from the women students. Many didn’t want her to speak because they felt she defined herself solely through the person she married, rather than as an individual with her own life and interests.

    Does Williams have organized protests? Did Oklahoma? So Couric is taken more seriously as a commencement speaker than a First Lady.

  19. Blue Athena said

    Couric got there on her own…not through a husband. She got rich and successful. Have you ever been to the Williams campus? I can only speak for the 80s, but it was pretty much a feeder for MBAs and med school.

    And if you want to compare Wellesley activism to Williams? You’re not even starting with a comparable base.

  20. digglahhh said

    Athena,

    You know, I want to defend myself, but I think you are right. At least as right as I think that I am… I’m probably generalizing a little too much and overlapping my views here.

    Okay, Couric is not widely regarded as an expert. She is asked to give commencement addresses, but I’m sure so are sitcom actors and retired athletes.

    I used Couric as an example of both the news reader and the pundit. She is really only the former. I’ll admit that people aren’t widely seeking Couric’s personal opinion on the most important happenings in the world.

    Regis however, could win a Presidential election…

    I think it is fair and agreeable to say that we, collectively, bestow credibility and expertise on many people who are unqualified or undeserving of that status and that this phenomenon stretches beyond the political realm. I will also admit that there are far better examples of this than Couric.

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