Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for April 17th, 2007

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By the time Kurtz reported it, CBS had already withdrawn the material and apologized.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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