If blithe appropriation is a professional luxury, being the object of appropriation is less pleasant, even when the stakes are much lower. In June 2005, I reported in the Phoenix that pizza-magnate-turned-Catholic-crusader Tom Monaghan planned to bar pornography, birth control, and abortions from Ave Maria, his new town in Florida. Eight months later, the Associated Press relayed this information without attribution; Monaghan then embarked on a PR offensive that featured appearances on Today and Good Morning America. I should have been pleased the story was growing; instead, I was annoyed I wasn’t getting any recognition.
Given this pettiness — which I hope isn’t wholly unrepresentative — it’s no surprise that some journalistic veterans see the debate over whether and how to credit as relatively insignificant. That’s the view of Bob Phelps, who was the Times’ Washington editor from 1965 to 1974 and then ran the Globe’s coverage of the busing crisis. During his time in the capital, Phelps recalls, the Times’ New York editors regularly urged the DC bureau to acknowledge competitors’ scoops — and the DC bureau regularly resisted. “We said, ‘Well, that subject was on our list, and we just didn’t happen to choose that particular day [to cover it],” says Phelps. If a story demands coverage and can’t be significantly advanced, he adds, whatever competitor broke it should definitely get a nod. Still, “Outside of the newspaper industry, or the media in general, who cares whether you give credit or not?”
During his time as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer — an 18-year period during which the paper won 17 Pulitzers — Gene Roberts wasn’t quick to credit other papers, either. “Our policy at the Inquirer,” Roberts explains, “was that if we undertook an investigation from start to finish, we didn’t go into whoever had written about the subject before.” Consequently, Roberts thinks the Post’s decision not to cite Salon was fair: “My impression is that this was the Post’s own work — that they weren’t dependent in any way upon anything that had been previously written,” he says.
What’s the story?
Here’s the catch: for readers, knowing if and when a given story was previously covered can itself be a vital part of the story. After the Post’s Walter Reed stories ran, Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, expressed shock at what he’d read. “This news caught me — as it did many other people — completely by surprise,” Winkenwerder said. As Benjamin quickly pointed out on Salon, however, his own earlier stories on problems at Walter Reed raised real doubts about this claim of ignorance.
Here’s another example, from last year’s Massachusetts governor’s race. In October 2006, Democrat Deval Patrick’s previous support for Ben LaGuer — a convicted rapist who still maintains his innocence — became a central issue in his campaign against Republican Kerry Healey. On October 4, the Globe reported that Patrick had offered limited and inaccurate descriptions of his past involvement with LaGuer; a week later, Healey unveiled a controversial ad that hammered Patrick for his LaGuer ties.