One of the most popular stories in The New York Times this month was a lengthy feature about expat artists in Buenos Aires. The 2,798-word story, written by Times editor Denny Lee and titled Argentine Nights, asserted that “legions of foreign artists are colonizing Buenos Aires and transforming this sprawling metropolis into a throbbing hothouse of cool.”
Lee wrote that “musicians, designers, artists, writers and filmmakers” are “helping shake the Argentine capital out of its cultural malaise after a humbling economic crisis earlier this decade.” According to the story, “nearly everywhere you turn these days, the new arrivals seem to be planting their flags, whether at a so-called Chorizo house in historic San Telmo or a glassy condo in Puerto Madero.”
For the most part, all of this is true. There is just one problem. This story already had been done, in almost exactly the same manner, more than a year ago by Newsweek. The original story, titled “The Capital of Cool,” was written by Brian Byrnes and published on January 15, 2007.
In his story, Byrnes wrote that “an invasion of foreign artists is transforming Buenos Aires into an emerging international capital of cultural cool. Like Prague in the 1990s, Buenos Aires offers chic on the cheap and is attracting scores of musicians, filmmakers, journalists, designers and even sitcom writers from abroad. Hundreds, if not thousands, have spilled in from the United States, England, Spain and beyond, helping to bring the capital out of a period of deep cultural isolation after an economic collapse five years ago.”
But the similarities in the stories do not end here.
Here is how Byrnes described the local scene:
Champagne-fueled fashion shows and gallery openings keep the city’s glitterati on a 24/7 social schedule. Casting agents scour bars looking for young English or Mandarin speakers for the dozens of foreign commercials regularly being shot in the city.
Here is how Lee described it:
Video directors are scouting tango ballrooms for English-speaking actors. Wine-soaked gallery openings and behemoth gay discos are keeping the city’s insomniacs up till sunrise.
Lee precedes his remark about wine-soaked galleries with a sentence about video directors who scout tango ballrooms. Byrnes talks about casting agents just after he mentions the champagne-fueled fashion shows and gallery openings. Is there any difference between video directors who are scouting people and casting agents who scour bars for people? The similarities continue:
Dozens of blogs written by expats enthusiastically tout the good life on offer in B.A.
Like dozens of similar blogs written by foreigners, it rhapsodizes about the Argentine good life.
Argentina has a storied film tradition, and in recent years its movies have been gaining international acclaim, winning top honors at the Berlin, Stockholm and Tribeca film festivals.
Argentina has a storied film history — notable examples include the 1968 political documentary “The Hour of the Furnaces” and the post-junta feature, “Official Story,” which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1986 — and, in recent years, a so-called New Argentine Cinema has emerged, thanks to a new crop of directors like Daniel Burman and Lucrecia Martel who are winning prizes in Berlin, Toronto and other film festivals.
To recap, we know so far that Buenos Aires is so hot that it is cool, that it has both champagne-fueled and wine-soaked gallery openings, that it has both video directors and casting agents scouting and scouring bars and tango ballrooms, that dozens of bloggers enthusiastically tout and rhapsodize about life here and that Argentina has a storied film tradition and history.
In each of these examples, Lee comes perilously close to plagiarizing the original Newsweek story. And yet he does not, strictly speaking, take Newsweek’s material and place it, verbatim, into his own story. But Lee’s imitation of Newsweek’s story goes beyond the uncanny echoing of phrases.
While writing about Argentine film, Lee mentions “Tomi Streiff, a filmmaker who moved to Buenos Aires from New York City with his partner and fellow screenwriter, Jane Hallisey. The couple is now working on a romantic comedy about a priest.” Byrnes, in his story, also quoted and referred to “Jane Hallisey, a screenwriter and film producer who moved from New York to Buenos Aires in 2003 with her Swiss partner and fellow cinéaste Tomi Streiff, to escape the grim, diminished work environment of post-9/11 New York.”
In all, Byrnes referred to or quoted 12 expats for his Newsweek story. Lee quoted or referred to not one or two of these sources, but to eight of them. These include Amanda Knauer, David Lampson, Gavin Burnett, Grant Dull, Jane Hallisey, Marina Palmer, Tomi Streiff and Tom Rixton. But while Lee referred to or quoted all of these sources, he did not contact all of them to confirm their stories. Marina Palmer, author of “Kiss and Tango,” is one of those people. She actually left Argentina in September to move to Oxford. And while she plans “to return to Argentina as much as possible,” she is no longer an expat in Buenos Aires. She said in an email that Lee had not interviewed her.
To be fair, Lee’s story is more extensive than the Newsweek piece, which runs 1,757 words. In all, Lee quotes or refers by name to 17 people, most of whom are expats or foreigners visiting Buenos Aires. He also talks about how Argentine artists are taking their work overseas.
Of course, it is common for different reporters and different media companies to cover the same events, trends, people and places. This is part of the business. But whenever possible, the best reporters will look for a unique angle that nobody else has covered. Photographers will seek a distinct smile or look on someone’s face.
When writers are not covering plane crashes, press conferences or other breaking news events, they generally have more time to investigate and craft their stories. They can – or at least should – uncover unique elements and tell their tales in ways that are fresh and original. This is, or at least ought to be, the case with features like the two we are examining here. To his credit, Lee expands on the original Newsweek piece, surpassing it in its in-depth portrayal of the expat artistic community. Lee’s story has more of a narrative quality to it, perhaps allowing readers to feel as if they are actually walking along the cobblestone streets that Lee describes. But Byrnes also writes of cobblestone streets. Indeed, where Byrnes notes that the “cobblestone streets of Buenos Aires’s historic San Telmo district don’t sing only with the seductive sounds of tango music anymore,” Lee writes that a “new kind of tango is taking shape along the crooked back streets of Buenos Aires.” One could be forgiven for concluding that these two stories really are singing the same tune.
The very premise of Lee’s story – that an expat invasion is “shaking” the cultural foundations of Buenos Aires – tends to undermine his own credibility in this matter. After all, if “nearly everywhere you turn these days” there is an expat planting his or her flag, as Lee wrote, then why did he not refer to more of them in his story? Why did he refer to or quote so many of Newsweek’s sources when “legions of foreign artists are colonizing Buenos Aires?”
Fred Brown is vice chair of the ethics committee at the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also a past national president of the SPJ and he helped write the Society’s 1996 Code of Ethics. Amid a long list of rules, the Code states that a journalist should “never plagiarize.”
If verbatim theft is what counts, then Lee is not guilty. No two sentences are exact duplicates. But it sure appears that he virtually copied entire phrases, ideas and even the basic structure of Newsweek’s original article. I contacted Brown to ask him what he thought of Lee’s story. Does it amount to plagiarism?
“I’d say this is certainly a case where the similarities are not coincidental,” Brown said. “There are too many phrases that are too similar. One of the dead giveaways for plagiarism is that while the words may be slightly changed, the structure remains the same. That certainly seems to be the case here. And if it’s not plagiarism, it’s certainly sloppy and lazy journalism. This is not fair to the original writer. The New York Times should be more careful about this. Given its history, the Times needs to be very careful about this sort of thing.”
Brown was referring mainly to the scandal surrounding former Times reporter Jayson Blair. In 2003 the Times gained heaps of unwanted attention after it was discovered that Blair had plagiarized material and engaged in the wholesale invention of stories. He had used fake sources and had written about places and events even though he had not been to those places or witnessed those events. At the time, the Blair scandal was the latest in a string of embarrassing discoveries involving unethical journalists who had greatly embellished stories or simply made them up from scratch.
Apart from misstating the age of one source, 25-year-old Tom Masterson (Lee said he was 35), Lee’s story appears to be accurate. Nonetheless, it appears that Lee took the entire skeleton of the Newsweek story and used it as his own without crediting Newsweek.
All of this underscores Brown’s view that Lee’s story is “sloppy and lazy journalism.” There is no ruling body in journalism that could preside authoritatively over a trial of this matter, but The NYT certainly could. That is exactly what Brown thinks it should do.
“The NYT has set very high standards for itself and it should live up to them,” Brown said. “Usually this kind of thing sets off an internal investigation that reviews other stories by the writer. If it turns out there are other instances like this by this same writer, I think the Times should follow its own standards and they should do what they did with Jason Blair. Maybe the general public doesn’t really understand this sort of thing or understand what all the fuss is about. But situations like this give newspapers like the Times an opportunity to say, ‘We care about ethics.’”
Brown, who teaches communication ethics at the University of Denver, said that no high school or college journalism teacher would allow a student to lift material like this. “If two of my students came to me with stories like these, I would certainly think that one of them copied from the other. It would not be acceptable.”
It should not be acceptable for the NYT either. Evidently, however, it has been. On January 22, 2006, Lee wrote a story titled “Lithuania: Finding a Future in Its Soviet Past.” It was a nicely written three-paragraph story on Lithuania that included colorful descriptions of two bars. Embarrassingly for the NYT, Lee had written the piece without having been to Lithuania. The Times attached the following “Editor’s Note” to the article:
A brief article in the Travel section on Jan. 22 described vestiges of the Soviet era in Lithuania. It told of “nostalgia for pre-perestroika innocence,” and described bars in Vilnius, the capital, that had Soviet military and political themes, and a park with statues of Marx and Stalin.
The article was based on information obtained from travel Web sites and online searches of various other publications, including The Guardian, The National Post of Canada and USA Today, and some of its information was outdated. (Both bars, for example, closed some years ago.)
The article should have made clear that it was not based on first-hand reporting on the scene.
Whoa! Stop the press. In any kind of investigation into Lee’s previous work, this eyebrow-raising shocker would be key evidence. It is a blatant violation of Lee’s obligation to the NYT. He failed to comply with even the simplest of his duties as a reporter, which is to confirm the veracity of the material he is writing about. The Times rectified the situation and met its duty to readers by placing the editor’s note on Lee’s story. But this was only a partial fulfillment of the NYT’s responsibility. The newspaper, known as the Grey Lady in journalistic circles, also had an ethical duty to talk with Lee to ensure that this kind of thing did not occur again. Only Lee and his superiors at the NYT know if this occurred.
The NYT and other major media companies for decades have been accused of poaching stories from smaller newspapers and magazines. This is common in journalism. In some cases, it is unfair and irresponsible. In other cases, where the original work is cited, it can be considered flattering. Under no circumstances, however, can the wholesale copying of ideas, phrasings and structure be justified. This seems to be the case with Denny Lee and Argentine Nights. If so, it is more than sloppy and lazy journalism. It is intellectual theft. And Lee has been accused of this before.
In 2003, The Villager, a small New York City newspaper, published the following article, titled “You be the judge”:
For a while, we had become inured to The New York Times lifting our stories, but we finally got sick of it.
On June 25, we sent to The New York Times over two dozen articles that closely parallel articles previously published in The Villager, and requested a review from senior New York Times management. An investigation by Connie Rosenblum, New York Times City Section editor ensued, and the matter was referred to one of her superiors, Bill Borders, a New York Times senior editor. After a three-week review, the Times acknowledged that The Villager’s original reporting should have been credited for some of these articles. Borders said that he agreed that “the Times seemed to show an unhealthy reliance on prior reporting in The Villager.”
The Times, however, did not respond to a request by The Villager to inform New York Times readers of this “unhealthy reliance” through a correction or editor’s note.
The New York Times sets a high standard in journalism. Its own ethics policy reads: “The Times treats it readers as fairly and openly as possible. In print and online, we tell our readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them.” In this case, it is our view that the Times has not met its own high standard.
It should not be difficult for the Times to acknowledge that its writers read, and draw from, other publications. The Times needs to enforce its attribution policy to credit the efforts of other independent news gathering organizations for their original reporting. It’s a matter of fairness, professional courtesy and good journalistic ethics.
Below is a sample of articles from The New York Times, paired with the attached previously published Villager article, that we think highlights the Times’ lack of attribution — and its “unhealthy reliance on previous reporting in The Villager.”
Denny Lee wrote sixteen of those stories.
All of this seems like déjà vu to Albert Amateau. He is a Villager reporter who wrote five of the stories that The Villager complained about to the NYT.
“Our publisher, John Sutton, was furious about this,” Amateau said in comments to The Argentine Post. “He is a real believer in journalism and in the editorial process. He raised hell with the Times about this and he cited Denny Lee for picking up stories from us almost verbatim.”
Amateau said he was surprised to see that Lee was still writing for the NYT. “I haven’t seen his byline in ages. I figured they had gotten rid of him.”
Amateau said Lee easily could have avoided trouble if he had given The Villager credit for being the source of his NYT stories.
“We like it when people pick up our ideas and cite us,” Amateau said. “This is part of the news that our readers want to know about it. Denny was the major offender in all of this. He should have attributed those stories. It would make him look like a scholar and a hard worker. That would have satisfied John Sutter.”
On August 4, 2003, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz addressed this issue and had the following to say:
Some journalistic sins are crystal clear, like Jayson Blair plagiarizing out-of-town stories without leaving New York. And some situations are much murkier.
There’s no hint of plagiarism here; in each case, Times staffers did their own reporting and filed stories that read very differently. And it’s hardly unusual for big-city papers, including The Washington Post, to follow up on reports in smaller community papers. But in this case there appears to be a pattern of lifting ideas without credit.
So why did Lee not attribute the stories? He did not return an email request for comment. But doing so would not have made him or the NYT look bad. If anything, it would have made the NYT look magnanimous, earning it even more respect from readers and from journalists. After all, it is impossible for the NYT or any other media company to scoop everyone in all places and at all times. The NYT has very talented reporters, and lots of them. It will always get its fair share of original stories. For the NYT to assume it has to be the first to report every story is both unrealistic and arrogant. It is also an insult to hardworking reporters elsewhere whose own original work will never make it into the NYT.
Meanwhile, the NYT ran into trouble again last month in another story about Argentina. On February 28, 2008, the NYT placed another editor’s note on a front-page article by Alexei Barrionuevo. Slate media critic Jack Shafer discovered that the story, which was about a cocaine epidemic in Argentina, had plagiarized, word-for-word, more than 60 words from a previous Miami Herald article on the topic.
As for Argentine Nights, it is easy to guess why Lee might not have offered credit to Newsweek. In this case, Lee’s story comes exceptionally close to plagiarism. So Lee, who surely is aware of the similarities, would not want to alert anyone to them. But he easily could have crafted a story that was his own without relying on Newsweek. If the NYT continues to let Lee abuse his position like this it will be equivalent to sticking its thumb in the eye of hardworking reporters everywhere who live up to the industry’s highest ethical standards.
A recent Harris Poll indicated that just 30% of Americans tend to trust the press. A slightly higher percentage (41%) tend to trust Internet news and information sites. To improve these figures, journalists not only will have to say that they believe in high ethical standards, but they will have to live up to them. Media companies, meanwhile, will have to enforce them.
Journalists are not particularly respected as professionals. People often scoff at them the way they do at divorce lawyers and used-car salesmen. This is partly because we do not always live up to the ethical standards we set for ourselves. “The purpose of journalism,” wrote Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism, “is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” But if people do not trust us with that information, we will have defeated the very purpose of our work.
The attribution of original material has become standard practice in the blogosphere. Indeed, it is rare to see respected blogs that do not link or refer to original sources. Perhaps this is why more people seem to trust the Internet for news. Bloggers often offer praise and “kudos” to others for being the first to write something. A failure to do so is considered extremely uncouth. It is time for the Old World of print to catch up to the New World of digital media, where, perhaps, ethical practices have in some ways evolved faster and more completely than elsewhere. Denny Lee ought to be held accountable for his actions, and so should the Times.
UPDATE: Stuart Emmrich, the Travel Editor at the NYT, sent a rather detailed email to The Argentine Post in which he said “there was no plagiarism at work” in Lee’s story.
“As for the writing,” Emmrich said, “there are some unfortunate places where the two pieces overlap: “storied film history”; “wine-soaked art galleries” vs. “Champagne-fueled fashion shows.” And I don’t mean to minimize this issue at all – nor does Denny – but I feel those similarities have more to do with perhaps falling back on the old travel clichés — and of the difficultly of finding new ways to describe a city as being “hot” and “hip” — then (Sic) a deliberate attempt to copy someone else’s language or reporting.”
I am trying to find a way to post the entirety of Emmrich’s email via a down-loadable PDF or something similar so that readers can read it for themselves. I will update this post as soon as I have figured out how to do this.
Link: Argentine Nights
Link: The Capital of Cool
Link: Brian Byrnes
Link: NYT Lithuania Story & Editor’s Note
Link: NYT Argentina Drug Story & Editor’s Note
Link: The Villager Story on NYT’s Stories
Link: Slate Story on NYT Plagiarizing The Miami Herald
Link: Harris Poll on Trust & the Press
Link: Society of Professional Journalist Ethics Code
Link: SPJ’s Ethics Hotline
Link: Online Ethics Advice for Journalists
Link: British National Union of Journalists Code of Ethics
*For reasons unknown to me, Howard Kurtz’s original story has been removed from the Washington Post site and must be found using Lexus Nexus or a similar kind of search engine.