How harshly should a newspaper deal with a reporter who makes a string of serious but possibly honest mistakes? Editors at The New York Times (NYT) will answer that question today when they determine the fate of Zachery Kouwe, a business reporter who copied passages from competing news outlets in numerous articles.Kouwe, who covers mergers and acquisitions, has been suspended pending the verdict from his bosses, expected to be delivered at a meeting on Tuesday afternoon. The first public disclosure of his transgressions came Sunday in the form of an editor's note stating that Kouwe had "improperly appropriated wording and passages" and "reused language from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other sources without attribution or acknowledgment." The editor's note did not use the word "plagiarism," suggesting that Kouwe's superiors were taking a nuanced view of his transgressions.
It appears that the Times only became aware of the pattern on Friday, when Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, wrote his counterpart at the Times, executive editor Bill Keller, to complain about one such instance. The Times and the Journal have been sparring with increasing frequency and vitriol in recent months; in one notable instance, Thomson accused Keller of attempting to sabotage the Journal's bid for a journalism award. (Keller did not immediately respond to an inquiry from DailyFinance. Kouwe declined to comment.)
That Kouwe's actions supplied a rival with ammunition is unlikely to help him obtain clemency. And clemency has been in short supply at the Times lately: The paper recently dispatched of three freelancers who violated its ethics policy. All three said they simply hadn't understood how the elaborate rules applied to them.
On the other hand, there's the example of opinion columnist Maureed Dowd, possessor of perhaps the Times's most famous byline. Last May, Dowd published a column featuring a passage that turned out to have been lifted from Talking Points Memo. Bizarrely, Dowd explained that she'd copied the passage not from that blog but from an email sent to her by a friend, raising the question of why a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer can't craft her own sentences. She escaped with nothing more than a slap on the wrist from the paper's public editor.
One additional question in all this is whether Kouwe's use of other writers' language was confined to his work for the Times. A representative at the New York Post, where Kouwe worked before joining the Times, declined to comment on whether that paper is conducting its own review of his articles. But it's worth noting that, at the Post, Kouwe was writing only for the daily edition, while at the Times he has filed far more often as a contributor to the paper's DealBook blog. As I noted last week, web-speed journalism raises exponentially the possibility of journalistic malpractice, even for the best-intentioned of practitioners.
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