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Can borrowing an idea without fessing up be considered plagiarism?

Plagiarism seems like a straightforward offense: It's one writer using the words of another without crediting him, right? But there are times when figuring out if someone's at fault can be as sticky as Richard Gere's mythical gerbil.

For proof, consider the complaints recently leveled against Warren Epstein, a columnist who writes about TV, radio and film for the Colorado Springs Gazette. Epstein believes not only that he is innocent of plagiarism regarding a controversial column, but that what he did is normal procedure at media outlets of every description. By contrast, the folks at the Colorado Springs Independent, an alternative weekly whose relationship with the Gazette is generally frostier than a snowman, believe the situation raises important questions about how credit is, and isn't, given by journalists.

The tale begins June 20 with the Internet appearance of "The War Over Dr. Laura," a report by Kerry Lauerman, Washington bureau chief for the lively Web site Salon, about Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the finger-wagging moral avenger known for her disapproval of homosexuals, working moms and the Denver Public Library ("The Doctor Is Out," September 21). The piece spotlighted a meeting between reps of Proctor & Gamble, a conglomerate that had dropped its advertising support of Dr. Laura, and higher-ups at Focus on the Family, the powerful Colorado Springs-based Christian organization headed up by Dr. Laura sympathizer James Dobson. At this get-together, the Focus team screened episodes from racy programs in an effort to show that Proctor & Gamble's advertising budget was sustaining stuff far more objectionable than anything Schlessinger might spew. The demonstration made an impact: Although Proctor & Gamble didn't change its stance on Dr. Laura, the firm announced that it would steer clear of MTV's Undressed and The Tom Green Show.

Upon seeing Lauerman's effort, Epstein set out to write his own take on the subject. The result, "Dobson Has Ear of Corporate Giant," published July 2, featured a brief quote from Dobson's radio show that had also turned up on Salon, and listed the same three products (Pampers, Cover Girl and Clearasil) that Lauerman used to underline the scope of Proctor & Gamble's manufacturing empire. Otherwise, Epstein's column comes across as a similar but separate take on the subject.

The rub? Epstein didn't note that Salon had done the story first -- nor does he feel this was necessary. "It's just not the way it's generally done," he says. "If I had that attitude, I'd be calling the TV stations every other day."

He's right, of course. Newspapers inspire a huge number of reports seen on television newscasts, but this is seldom acknowledged -- unless, of course, the outlet has a relationship with the paper in question, as Channel 4 does with the News and Channel 9 does with the Post (then we hear about it ad nauseam). The same is true from station to station: Last year, after Channel 7 helicopter footage of a police chase led to a Wellington Webb press conference and a lengthy investigation, competing broadcasters covering these developments studiously avoided mentioning the Channel 7 connection ("Eyes in the Sky," September 2, 1999). And the Denver dailies regularly engage in identical tap dances with each other. Maybe things will change after the joint operating agreement twinning the institutions is in place, but right now, the News almost never admits when it's following up on a scoop by the Post, and vice versa. The result is intellectual dishonesty that insults readers and encourages cynicism -- but those are the rules by which the majority of the media operates.

In his case, though, Epstein contends that he wasn't trying to screw Salon out of recognition for competitive reasons, adding that he had no idea whether Lauerman had broken the story. Yet after Epstein, along with his editors, received an angry e-mail from Lauerman complaining about the failure to mention his work, he decided to cite Salon in his July 6 column; he wrote that his piece "was a follow-up on a report by salon.com."

That takes care of that, Epstein thought -- but he was wrong. In the July 13 Independent, news editor Cara DeGette took a disapproving view of Epstein's conduct in her "Public Eye" column, leading with the line "The Internet is a treasure trove of ideas for enterprising journalists -- but that doesn't mean it's OK to lift a story and recast it in print without accrediting the original source." Even worse, in Epstein's view, was the blurb that teased DeGette's column on the Independent's Web site, csindy.com: It read, "Gazette columnist Warren Epstein lifts a story from salon.com and recasts it in print practically verbatim."

After Epstein called the Independent and demanded a retraction and an apology, Independent editor Kathryn Eastburn (who -- full disclosure -- reprinted a story on SUVs written by yours truly in her paper in July) had the offending line removed from the Web site and published an apology in her July 20 issue. But no other acts of contrition were forthcoming. "We stand by the content of the column," Eastburn wrote, adding, "Just because attribution is not commonly practiced, according to some industry sources, that doesn't mean it should be dismissed as an ethical and practical journalistic standard."

Epstein, in turn, has questions about the journalistic standards of the Independent. He says that DeGette once slammed him in print for writing that a local DJ had an alcohol problem when one of his colleagues had actually done so; moreover, he swears that he asked DeGette to call him in advance before writing about him in the future, which she didn't do in July. (DeGette was out of town and unavailable for comment in Westword, but Eastburn says she's been told the Gazette has a policy against allowing its staffers to speak with the Independent. Epstein insists that, to his knowledge, no such rule exists.) Nonetheless, Epstein says he might have dropped the whole shebang were it not for what happened next: In "Policing Plagiarism," an article in the August 7 edition of the respected media trade magazine Editor & Publisher, writer Joe Strupp lumped the Epstein matter into a laundry list of "questionable stories" that had been published of late. "No action was taken against Epstein," Strupp concluded -- implying, in Epstein's view, that he should have been punished in some way.

"This didn't fit into the discussion, because it's really not a case of plagiarism, or even accused plagiarism," he says. "And yet it pops up as an example."

The Editor & Publisher ignominy prompted Epstein to look into suing the Independent, but he ultimately agreed not to seek legal redress in exchange for having the Independent publish a letter he wrote about the accusations sans further rebuttal. In this missive, which ran September 14, he called DeGette's column a "hit piece," referred to the crediting issue as a "smoke screen," and concluded by declaring, "Anybody who wonders why many readers don't like or trust journalists need look no further than the 'Public Eye' column -- the land that truth forgot." A letter to Editor & Publisher that appeared on September 11 makes many of the same allegations while stating that the Independent had "retracted" its original accusations.

Eastburn, who says she rejected three versions of Epstein's letter before finally okaying the one she printed, refutes this last characterization. "I intend to respond to his [Editor & Publisher] letter, because we have not rescinded the story. Warren continues to say that this is how all papers operate now and it's impossible to know what the source of a story is, whereas we believe in the need for accreditation across the board. So we fundamentally disagree."

On that, at least, Epstein concurs. "In retrospect, I probably made a mistake crediting Lauerman after the fact, because that may have given the perception that I feel we should credit these people. And frankly, the only reason I did it was because he was pissed off at me -- and I don't want somebody to be pissed off at me."

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