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A favorite Beltway-media pastime is checking up on the progress of the Washington Post’s recycling programand I’m not referring to the ugly brown bins in your favorite Metro stop. Put simply, the Post’s attribution policy is scattershot at best, and smaller media outlets can’t always count on getting their props.
The Post is not unlike a number of large papers in this respect. A cursory glance at www.smartertimes.comwhich serves as a cyber-watchdog on the New York Timesreveals numerous unacknowledged rehashes of other publications’ scoops by that paper, which has long had a reputation for planting its own flag on already-inhabited journalistic territory.
In the interest of full disclosure, we at the Washington City Paper get prickly about such tendencies at the Post, too. One instance that leaps to mind is a Dec. 1, 2000, Loose Lips column detailing a molestation charge (later deemed false) leveled against Metropolitan Police Department Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer. The Post thought it was a good enough story to put on its front page almost two months lateron Jan. 29with no attribution to the Loose Lips scoop.
Occasionally, such Post recycling dons a fig leaf of sorts, as it did on July 19, when the paper ran a front-page story about crooked Drug Enforcement Agency snitch Andrew Chambers. That article buried its one-sentence attribution to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (which published its story on Jan. 16, 2000) and the Los Angeles Times (which debuted its version on March 5, 2000) on the jump page, 15 paragraphs into the piece. (Bonus attribution irony? Only the Times credited the National Law Journal, which originally broke the Chambers story on Nov. 19, 1999.) Recycling? Yes, but with a perfunctory nod.
On rare occasions, the Post gets it exactly right. On Thursday, Aug. 23, for instance, Style’s Names and Faces column ran an item on a domestic-abuse charge against Richard Hatch, champion of the first Survivor reality game show. Small as it was, the item did credit the Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com), an old-school investigative-journalism Web site, for posting the details of the arresting officer’s incident report.
So how exactly did the Post, on the very same day in the very same section involving the very same Web site, get the attribution game wrong?
Last Thursday’s Style section featured a front-page story penned by projects reporter Joe Stephens about the release of FBI files on Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Sr. (father of former Vice President Al Gore Jr.), who died in December 1998. Stephens’ article was a tightly written and slightly snarky take on a bitter feud between the senator and the FBI detailed in the document release.
So what’s wrong here? Well, the Smoking Gun had the same stuff (biting synopsis of the feud) and more (excerpts from the files) on its Web site two weeks before, on Aug. 8. The two pieces mirrored each other in the juicy quotes taken from the files and in concluding jokes about the “souvenir targets” requested by Gore Jr. during an FBI headquarters tour in June 1957 and later sent to the senator’s office by the FBI in an unmarked envelope.
William Bastone, who edits the Smoking Gun along with Daniel Green, says that he saw the Style piece and fired off an e-mail to Stephens about it. The Post scribe says he replied with a compliment and an explanation.
“I told him nicely that he had a nice site,” says Stephens. He explains that he had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Gore Sr. after his death, when he was a reporter with the Kansas City Star. When the documents were released, Stephens says, they ended up in his hands only after a stop at his former paper.
Stephens says, “I think I was aware [of the Smoking Gun piece]” before penning his own, but asserts that “I don’t know how that’s relevant.” His Style piece, he argues, “was taken from documents. It’s run-of-the-mill.”
Style Editor Eugene Robinson says that he wasn’t “intimately involved” in moving Stephens’ piece to print, but he does take a more expansive view of the Post’s need to attribute than the writer does. “We have a clear policy, which is to attribute,” says Robinson. “We’d rather err on the side of overattribution, rather than underattribution….
When we don’t, that means we made a mistake.”
The Smoking Gun isn’t holding a grudge. “I take [Stephens] at his word,” says Bastone, who adds that he can’t recall any other time that the Post hasn’t attributed stories that have hit the Smoking Gun’s page first. He also observes that much of what the FBI released on Gore Sr. was “bullshit, garbage, nothing of interest,” so he’s not surprised that another journalist drew similar conclusions and culled comparable material from the same FOIA release.
Bastone observes that the Smoking Gun does get ripped off “from time to time,” particularly by supermarket tabloids. He adds that the Web site’s higher profile since its purchase last year by Court TV (which links to stories from the Smoking Gun on its own site) means that “generally…#it doesn’t happen as much as it used to happen.”
The marked similarity in the two articles, however, makes a strong case for some sort of attribution by the Post to the Smoking Gun. Stephens’ article didn’t advance the Gore Sr./FBI story even a little bit, and the Post was beaten to the punch by two weeks.
That’s recycling. Richard Byrne
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