The November 16 Denver Post was dominated by "Betrayal in the Ranks," the first portion of an impressive three-part series about injustices visited upon women in the armed services. Too bad this proud achievement appeared in the same paper with an embarrassing item headlined "Post Music Writer G. Brown Resigns."
The second piece revealed that G. Brown, who spent more than a quarter-century writing about popular music for the Post, left after a reader noticed similarities between an October 26 Brown preview of a Simon & Garfunkel concert that highlighted other quarrelsome groups, and an earlier effort by another writer. In a statement about the incident, Brown offers more information. "The inclusion of a paragraph from an outside source in my Simon & Garfunkel article should not have occurred," he says. "Working electronically, cobbling notes and other background material together on deadline, that limited amount of source material mistakenly got into my long, elaborate feature."
Actually, things aren't quite that simple. A single paragraph didn't find its way into Brown's overview from the reader-provided article, an online essay about the Beatles by author Jacques Menasche from 2001. Instead, two sentences from separate Menasche paragraphs showed up in various forms, connected by a third line. The first of these sentences shows signs of minor tinkering. Menasche wrote of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, "Most [sic] than collaborators, they were competitors, vying not simply for the title of band 'leader,' but seeming to offer up radically different modes of being." Brown countered with, "You couldn't call them collaborators in any traditional sense. They were competitors, vying not simply for the title of band 'leader,' but seeming to offer up a division of types." The second sentence ("Eventually, even if their music didn't always force fans to take sides, their public disputes -- from Lennon's searing 'How Do You Sleep?' on his first solo album to McCartney's tepid 'It's a drag' comment after Lennon's killing -- did") differed by just one word; Brown took out the "always." On top of that, text from Brown's sidebar mirrors a paragraph from an article the Post appears not to have discovered -- a January 2001 New York Daily News offering by Isaac Guzman. Three samples:
Guzman: "Don and Phil Everly turned harmonies into acrimony." Brown: "The Everly Brothers turned harmonies into acrimony." Guzman: "The Kinks' Ray Davies used to insult his sibling Dave onstage. Dave would respond by hurling his guitar at Ray." Brown: "Ray would respond to his sibling's insults by hurling his guitar at him." Guzman: "At one Oasis concert, Liam Gallagher refused to perform but later turned up in the balcony, from which he heckled brother Noel." Brown: "At one concert, Liam refused to perform but later turned up in the balcony to heckle Noel."
The Post resignation narrative quoted Brown as attributing the duplications it found to "sloppiness" and noted that he'd been suspended for two months in 1993 for borrowing part of his lead for a Keith Richards concert review from Rolling Stone. Brown wasn't pleased by the piece as a whole, as his statement makes plain: "I strongly disagree with the way the Post characterized my overall work record, and these specific circumstances," he says. However, he fails to address a part of the Post mea culpa dealing with a subsequent investigation that reportedly turned up "twelve additional examples in which Brown's articles copied phrases or sentences in whole or in part from other publications, without attribution to those publications" during 2003.
There's no telling if more secrets are hidden within Brown's sizable oeuvre (he says he's had 1,909 Post bylines since 1994), but there's no doubt the timing of the latest accusations could hardly have been worse from his perspective. After all, the Post has spent months conducting a sweeping overhaul of its ethics policy, the current draft of which was shared with the staff just before Brown came under scrutiny.
Westword recently obtained a copy of the fifteen-page document, dated October 10, and taken as a whole, it's earnest, scrupulous and laudably serious in the way it goes about establishing guidelines for behavior. The prose dealing with "Plagiarism and Originality" is typical: "Acts of plagiarism or fabrication announce to the world that the writer did not have the honesty, skill, savvy or energy to do the work that someone else performed.... If you work at the Denver Post, your writing and reporting must be original."
These principles don't leave much wiggle room, and that's the way editor Greg Moore likes it. "We want to set a very high ethical standard, where people understand that we want to be independent of all interests," he says. "We don't want to have the appearance of conflicts or impropriety."
Once the policy is finalized, probably about a month from now, Moore says it will be put online at www.denverpost.com, where Internet surfers can examine it at their leisure. This is a bold act of transparency, since random sections indicate how difficult it is to balance journalistic purity with the necessities of news-gathering on a budget. The majority of the dozen or so Post editorial employees contacted by Westword view the overall process in positive terms, but they acknowledge that some staffers are unhappy with dictates covering topics from tickets for critics to political bumper stickers.
Managing editor Gary Clark says the Post project was spurred by Salt Lake Tribune reporters Kevin Cantera and Michael Vigh, who were paid $10,000 each by the National Enquirer for information about the kidnapping of Utah teen Elizabeth Smart. To help Tribune employees deal with the repercussions of their colleagues' actions, Dean Singleton, owner of the Trib and the Post, arranged for Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida, to make a series of presentations. Singleton and Moore booked Steele for sessions at the Post, too. Steele won't directly address what he discussed with Post employees on May 8 and 9, but he describes his approach in general as focusing upon "very hands-on, practical conversations about the challenges journalists face and how to make good ethical decisions."
Shortly thereafter, Post personnel determined that the paper's previous ethics policy was inadequate. In addition to the policy's brevity (it was less than two pages long), Clark says it intermittently failed to address issues that arose. "We were getting questions from the staff about media days," he remembers. "I had to put out a couple of e-mails saying it was inappropriate -- that we don't take things that aren't available to the public because of where we work."
Rocky Mountain News managing editor Deb Goeken says she hasn't run into problems like these in respect to her paper's ethics policy, which was developed by parent corporation E.W. Scripps. According to her, "It's covered everything that's come up so far." But the Post is not alone in overhauling its policy. "I've had a fair number of calls from editors since spring," Steele says. "In some cases, they just wanted my thoughts and input as to their review and revision of ethics policies, and in some cases, they've asked me to come and do workshops. The Tallahassee Democrat, the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald are three I've done this fall." He adds, "There's been a lot of interest at newspapers across the country to make sure what I call their 'quality-control standards' are clear and substantive."
To this end, three committees were formed at the Post to probe conflicts of interest, community and political involvement and reporting standards, respectively. Once their work was done, a fourth committee winnowed the material down, topping it with a "Preamble" marked by philosophical statements such as this one: "With every ethical scar, we threaten a delicate relationship with readers."
Other parts of the policy echo this tone, but the text is mainly straightforward. The authors underline convictions about fairness (a must), quotes (they're sacred) and errors (they must be corrected promptly).
Things get trickier in the section headlined "Tickets, Credentials." The strictest interpretation of Clark's media-day comment -- "We don't take things that aren't available to the public because of where we work" -- would require the Post to purchase tickets to music events, plays and even charity functions for all staffers covering them. Too bad the cost of doing so would be prohibitively expensive. Hence, concessions were made to let employees "use media credentials to cover stories, events and sports," even though doing so means accepting the largesse of the very institutions at the center of stories. On the other hand, taking a second ticket, an industry practice known as "plus-one," is now forbidden unless the extra person is, say, an authority on the subject matter whose opinions will add to the quality of an article.
Post theater writer John Moore, responding by e-mail, thinks this last change is "intended to put out a fire that doesn't exist. Two seats per reviewer is the standard operating procedure of theaters from Denver to New York.... So our specific favor is not being curried. I just know that whenever I bring any guest, be it a friend, an expert on the source material or my ten-year-old niece, my reviews are always better for the conversation the performance stimulates."
Maybe so, but Greg Moore sees ending plus-ones as a matter of simple equity. "Because you're the theater critic or the movie critic doesn't mean people get a chance to see a bunch of free movies or plays," he says. "We pay our people to cover events, not to entertain anybody else."
Accepting CDs, DVDs and books that are sent to the paper for review is another gray area, since regular people don't receive thousands of items per annum before they're put on sale. Yet purchasing this stuff at retail would land the Post in bankruptcy mighty quick and delay coverage. To distance critics from even more conflict, the policy declares the merchandise to be "the property of the Denver Post."
Does that mean a truck could follow a music reviewer home after his last day to haul away his undoubtedly voluminous CD collection? Could be. Auctions of such goods are already fairly commonplace at the Post, with the proceeds earmarked for charity. And there's been talk of building a library at the new Post headquarters that's currently in the planning stage -- a tremendously expensive idea, not to mention a space crisis in the making.
At least gifts sent to reporters won't pile up. Rules require all items worth more than $25 -- and many valued at less -- to be returned to senders with an explanatory note. That doesn't bother columnist Bill Husted, who says the stuff he receives is less interesting that most folks think. A quick survey of his desk turns up "a box of Girl Scout cookies from last year, a candy apple, a Corona Light, a Mountain Dew LiveWire in a bucket, a KBCO calendar, an aluminum box of mints and a Cherry Creek Shopping Center hand fan."
The policy also forbids employees from investing "in any company they cover" and declares that if a member of "an employee's immediate family" owns such stock, "it may constitute a conflict of interest and should be reported immediately to a supervisor." Presumably, this edict could target spouses who established portfolios prior to marriage, adult children and conceivably even parents. Likewise, employees are permitted to sink cash into "widely held mutual funds and similar investments" that might include stock from covered companies, but potential conflicts "should immediately be disclosed to a ranking editor." For Aldo Svaldi, who covers mutual funds for the Post, this proved to be quite ticklish. In the end, the best he could do was to make sure his 401(k) didn't include any Denver-based funds.
Svaldi and others are allowed to attend what the policy describes as "receptions, dinners or mixers that help with source development" if they "pay their own way," but media days are out. When Svaldi hears about events "where we're not going and the Rocky is sending ten people," he wonders "if they maybe have closer contact with sources by going than we might get." Still, he says, "I really haven't missed it that much. And after a while, they stop asking you."
When it comes to political and civic involvement, the questions keep coming, since there are proscriptions against putting candidate-hyping bumper stickers on private vehicles, working for political candidates and causes on personal time or participating in rallies, marches and demonstrations. "It is not the newspaper's intention to excessively control private lives," the policy reads, "but keep in mind that if your involvement becomes public, it may compromise your professional credibility and the newspaper's." Investigative reporter David Migoya concurs and goes a step further. Although the policy encourages employees to cast ballots in elections, he prefers to neither vote nor register a party affiliation. In the view of the Poynter Institute's Steele, the latter choice is one every political reporter should consider.
For numerous Post employees, the word "consider" is key. They see an outright ban as infringing on their individual freedom, especially since their union contract gives them the right to engage in outside activities as long as they're not in direct competition with the paper. As such, the policy is being reworked with an eye toward finding a middle ground acceptable to the Denver Newspaper Guild. Says DNG administrative officer Tony Mulligan, "The guild supports an ethics policy and ethical reporting, but we also want to preserve an employee's right to a personal life. There needs to be a separation."
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Managing editor Clark is confident everything will be sorted out soon. He sees the policy as emphasizing "common sense. There are clearly some don'ts, but the majority is a road map, a guideline for ethical discussion and ethical decision-making. No policy can cover every single circumstance that can happen in any given day, but it sets up a system for thinking about things and having a rational discussion."
After such a chat, G. Brown waved farewell to the Post and said hello to a fine new gig. On November 17, he stepped in as the morning-drive host for KCUV, an Americana radio station at 1510 AM. In addition, he's awaiting the spring 2004 publication of his new book, Colorado Rocks!, a popular-music history of the state.
Aside from saying that the Brown matter would have been handled identically whether a new ethics policy was in the works or not, Moore declines to talk about the case, calling it a "personnel matter." Speaking generally, he describes plagiarism as "one of the cardinal sins of journalism. Even at newspapers that believe in second chances, when you have blatant lifting of material, you just have to impose the severest penalty."
To put it another way, Moore sees this sin as a different kind of betrayal in the ranks.