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Food writer fired for plagiarism


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The following appeared in Howard Kurtz's Media Notes column today (Washington Post):

Indigestion in Connecticut

The Hartford Courant has fired longtime food writer Karen Mamone for plagiarism.

Mamone was caught twice, says Editor Brian Toolan -- in both cases before the pieces were published. Toolan says he had no choice because "it was the second clear-cut case of content being filed under her byline that we know wasn't her original work."

Edited by Fat Guy (log)
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Oh my. Linkage, Rochelle?

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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I am saddened by this report, and I suspect many readers of the Courant are, as well.

Plagiarism is wrong. It's theft of somebody else's work. But, I'm not all that certain the Courant didn't get what it was paying for. Freelancers are rarely protected by unions and almost never have support. What did they really expect for their $50 or $100? A 10,000 word opus on nuclear fission?

In the recent case of NY Times Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, some of his work was written by an unpaid stringer. Bragg gets the bux, the stringer gets maybe a shot at the big time. Not even a credit line.

The Saudi terrorists walked past $5.15 an hour screener teams at Logan airport and Newark on September 11, 2001. The other two went thru a similar checkpoint in Portland ME. Ultimately, you get what you pay for, whether you're an airline buying security from fast food window guys or a respected newspaper filling column inches for a few bucks an inch.

If you give good journalists pay and resources, you'll get a good story. If you pay people $1.50 an hour, you may regret what they give you...

Apparently it's easier still to dictate the conversation and in effect, kill the conversation.

rancho gordo

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A very sad story, and the quote from Mamone ("Frankly, I didn't think it was any big deal. This was a food column, after all. Should I have used direct quotes or explained more where I got it? Yes, but I was more concerned about the flow of the sentence.") indicates she's in deep denial.

At the same time, Rail Paul has pointed to the tip of a very large iceberg of complicity and poor editorial practices on the part of newspapers -- even the best newspapers.

A few questions worth asking:

- If neither article in question was published, why the need for a public revelation of the reasons for this freelancer's "termination"? Employees are fired all the time, quickly and quietly, for breaking the law or behaving unethically -- but this sort of public humiliation is rare.

- Does the paper distribute writers' guidelines to its freelancers, and if so what are they? It certainly sounds as though this was a clear case of plagiarism, but in our research on the eGullet Recipe Archive we learned a lot about recipes and copyright (an issue closely related to plagiarism in terms of some of the standards in use) and found that many of the lines are extremely blurry. I'd be very interested to see the source material compared to the article submitted.

- Has the recent New York Times incident put editors everywhere on the journalistic equivalent of orange alert? Are writers now being censured for things that newspapers have been tolerating for years?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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"- Has the recent New York Times incident put editors everywhere on the journalistic equivalent of orange alert? Are writers now being censured for things that newspapers have been tolerating for years?"

Fat Guy,

There is likely something to this. If so, it is probably a good thing--that is, ethical standards are being raised on publications. Unfortunately, it probably will pass as soon as editors start to forget about the NY Times incident.

But the story also notes that the writer had, in both cases, taken material off the Internet and I think this is a major problem. Because it is so easy to do and can be done almost without thinking, many journalists (and, I suppose, non-journalists) don't think through the implications of appropriating material without attribution.

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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It certainly sounds as though this was a clear case of plagiarism, but in our research on the eGullet Recipe Archive we learned a lot about recipes and copyright (an issue closely related to plagiarism in terms of some of the standards in use) and found that many of the lines are extremely blurry.

Didn't Petits Propos Culinaires have an article or two comparing Beeton, etc. on recipes? Or was that the Hesses?

Surely that's a starting point for plagiarism & recipes.

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In this case it doesn't sound like she had plagiarized recipes, but rather textual material for the bulk of her article. And yes, newspapers around the country feel like they have to come out in the open about plagiarism much more these days!

I was also appalled that she said it was just a food column after all. So many people work so hard to have food treated seriously that it is really frustrating and disappointing to hear this from a food writer. I certainly hope that she never finds an outlet for her writing again.

Anne E. McBride

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"just a food column"! how can she even say that! I am totally appalled, so its okay to cheat on a food column but not on a XYZ column?

A few months ago I had asked a couple of fellow foodies, all well established in their areas, to contribute recipes for a magazine in NY. I had been asked by the magazine to pull together 15 recipes. I collected it all, called and asked each person to ensure that it was their own work... was assured that it was. Then a few weeks ago, I was looking through a very very old cookbook at Borders (you know the ones that they have for sale for $1.00) and guess what -- yes -- one of the "established food writers" with their own food business and website -- had copied the recipes (WORD FOR WORD) from this book and sent it to me... I WAS SO MAD... I know its a small thing compared to what is being discussed here.. but it makes me really angry that people do this all the time

Monica

Monica Bhide

A Life of Spice

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Rail Paul, I'm an underpaid freelancer. When I turn in a story, it may not always be my best work, but I certainly make every effort to ensure that it is. That means double-checking facts, testing recipes, and, hey, not turning it other people's work unquoted. I'm in favor of better pay and benefits for freelancers (I've got the UAW card in my wallet to prove it), but if my goal is to get the Daily Gullet to double my salary, I'm not going to get there by doing shoddy work, and I think the vast majority of freelancers feel the same.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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and I think the vast majority of freelancers feel the same.

There's certainly a vast difference between shoddy work and plagiarism. There's nothing unethical (or illegal) about writing something that sucks, so long as you wrote it yourself and didn't break any other rules.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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There's nothing unethical (or illegal) about writing something that sucks"

Perhaps not, but the tolerance for shoddy writing should be as low as that for plagiarism.

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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There's nothing unethical (or illegal) about writing something that sucks"

Perhaps not, but the tolerance for shoddy writing should be as low as that for plagiarism.

Except that it's easy to recognize and ignore bad writing. Plagiarism, because it often goes undetected, is much more insidious.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Even if readers don't recognize bad writing, they tend to ignore it--bad writing just isn't compelling. But employers should be more vigilant in guarding against shoddy writing. It is every bit as offputting as shoddy food. If you encounter it often enough, you just quit reading a particular publication, which may be one reason why newspapers are losing circulation pretty well across the board.

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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We agree about this.

I have no idea what really goes on at newspapers anymore, but headlines, traditional story structure, and proper attribution all used to be the territory of The Editor. This postion, in function if not title, seems to have disappeared.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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The analogy between writing and food is a good one, but I think it cuts the other way. As in the food world, the quality of writing that a journal is able to offer is directly related -- as a general rule -- to the amount of money and time that can be invested. Sure, there's a minimum standard below which nobody should drop. But just as not every restaurant has to serve haute cuisine (the culinary equivalent of the writing in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, Commentary, etc.), not every journal has to run in-depth, thoughtful stories about everything. There is, for example, no need for particularly good writing in hobbyist and niche publications devoted to woodworking techniques or classic car collecting. All that is needed is basic grammar, spelling, and the ability to convey the information the readers want. So there is a range of what is acceptable from a quality standpoint. The primary ethical standards, however, are not flexible. They apply equally to Pulitzer Prize winners and bloggers, Calvin Trillin and the Courant writer.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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... there is a range of what is acceptable from a quality standpoint. The primary ethical standards, however, are not flexible. They apply equally to Pulitzer Prize winners and bloggers, Calvin Trillin and the Courant writer.

Well put, FG.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Rail Paul, I'm an underpaid freelancer.  When I turn in a story, it may not always be my best work, but I certainly make every effort to ensure that it is.  That means double-checking facts, testing recipes, and, hey, not turning it other people's work unquoted.  I'm in favor of better pay and benefits for freelancers (I've got the UAW card in my wallet to prove it), but if my goal is to get the Daily Gullet to double my salary, I'm not going to get there by doing shoddy work, and I think the vast majority of freelancers feel the same.

First, let me say that I'm sure many freelancers share your ethical integrity.

But, newspapers no longer have the interest to provide fact checking, research or even editiorial guidance. Not for Rick Bragg, or Jayson Blair or any other high profile or lower profile reporters. Does that mean the other 100,000 newspaper journalists in the US call in their stories? Of course not. They take diligent effort to assure their stories are accurate.

I stand by my original comment. If you have a business where your workers are making minimum wage or much less, you're unlikely to attract many of the people you'd most like to have working for you. I'm happy that you're the exception to this conclusion, and I am sure there are others who have chosen this employment.

Very few newspaper food departments have more than one full time writer. Some rely heavily on wire services, others use stringers for local flavor. In a review of today's local Newhouse paper, the Newark Star Ledger here's what I found:

8 pages

3 pages of full page ads

4 half page ads (2 pages)

leaving 3 pages for smaller ads, articles, etc.

one 1/4 page listing of farmers markets in NJ from the Farmers Group, looks like a rewrite

four articles, all by freelancers

---one wine review by John Foy, a distinguished restaurateur

---one byways article on a circus based fast food place

---one review of NJ brewpubs by their restaurant critic

---one article with recipes for lychees

It's a business decision, and the newspapers choose not to pay more than they need to for freelance work. They undoubtedly make a bundle of money from the food section, how they choose to spend it is their business.

If you get burned, like the Courant (or the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal did),that's a cost of doing business. It's not like the New Yorker, where every fact was verified in every article for years. Only EB White, William Maxwell, and one or two other writers were among the "untouchables"

Apparently it's easier still to dictate the conversation and in effect, kill the conversation.

rancho gordo

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I think you are confusing fine writing and good writing. Fine writing is usually the province of a few publications whose readers expect the point of view and the writing style to be as compelling as the subject matter. People who read specialty magazines about things like woodworking are not going to demand stylish writing, but they will certainly insist on clarity, accuracy and some acceptable standard of spelling, grammar, diction, etc. And I've no doubt that on the rare occasions when they get stylish writing and a bold, vivid point of view, they're delighted.

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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I think you need to read the Automobile Club of New York magazine, Car & Driver. :laugh:

Mostly, I just want to see the alleged plagiarized material in its original form and in the form it was submitted.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The excuse, the act, the "crisis intervention" center, and all the other specifics (few as they are, given the paucity of the coverage) of the Courant incident remind me that one of the most oft-quoted academic treatments of plagiarism was written by my late father, Peter Shaw, in the American Scholar in 1982.

As the reporter Peter H. King summarized my father's thesis:

"As it develops," the late Peter Shaw, an English professor at Stony Brook University, wrote in a 1982 paper for the academic journal American Scholar, "giving the game away proves to be the rule rather than the exception among plagiarists. Both in the commission of the original act and in the fantastic excuses that follow it, plagiarism is often calculated above all to result in detection."

Shaw found similarities between plagiarists and kleptomaniacs. The pattern, he wrote, "begins with the plagiarist's act of stealing material of the sort that his talent and intelligence would appear to make unnecessary for him. There follows his strewing of clues to bring about detection. After detection, the plagiarist offers excuses that testify to the unconscious motivation of his original act, though ordinarily without acknowledging either its breach of ethics or its obvious self-destructiveness."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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But, newspapers no longer have the interest to provide fact checking, research or even editiorial guidance. Not for Rick Bragg, or Jayson Blair or any other high profile or lower profile reporters.

It is really wrong to lump Rick Bragg and Jayson Blair together. Rick Bragg hired someone to gather a story for him, the story was accurate, but Rick Bragg gave the freelancer no attribution.

Jayson Blair completely fabricated many stories. Different animal.

I think these newspapers are now nitpicking. I think these practices of giving someone else the "grunt work" have gone on and been widely accepted for years. Why is this any different from the sous-chefs in the kitchen doing all the work, and the proprietor/chef gets all the credit? Or a lawyer citing a case in court, and the research was done by his paralegal team? The limelight goes to the stars, and the grunts will continue to do their work without any mention.

The real issue is the accuracy of the story, not whether they gave everybody who had a hand in it public credit. That's why I think these are phony issues, and there is a real difference between what Rick Bragg did, and what Jayson Blair did.

Hope the food reporter gets hired by another newspaper soon!

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