Imus scandal overshadowed CBS’s plagiarism

  • By Scott Collins / Los Angeles Times
  • Friday, April 20, 2007 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Memo to Katie Couric: Send flowers to Don Imus.

No, not so the shock jock might spill his guts to her in the inevitable comeback-trail interview.

Instead, Couric should be grateful the recent Imus uproar took the heat off “CBS Evening News” for its own embarrassing ethical lapse, this one involving plagiarism and other brands of deception.

America, luckily for the former “Today” show co-host, has room for only one media scandal at a time.

But it would be unwise to bury the Couric case, because it underscores some of the trouble the news business is having managing new media (especially blogs and video blogs), not to mention its apparent need to mimic the rest of American business in overmarketing everything.

In case you missed it: In an April 4 video commentary posted on the Web, Couric mused about how kids are no longer as interested in local libraries as they once were. She reminisced about her first library card as a youngster. But, as was soon discovered, much of the rest of the copy was lifted almost verbatim from a recent column by the Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Zaslow.


For one brief minute, it looked as if the No. 3 evening-news anchor might be a plagiarist. But the network quickly set the record straight: It was actually a producer who copied the Journal column without attribution. In other words: Couric didn’t plagiarize. Someone else did, in her name. (The producer, whose identity a CBS News spokeswoman refused to confirm, was fired, and the video was removed from the Web site.)

CBS’ apology to readers characterized the incident as an “omission.”

Despite the many connections between print journalism and its TV cousin, the two fields operate under some strikingly different rules of engagement. Newspapers and magazines have relatively few tribal norms, but plagiarism is the ultimate taboo.

A network evening newscast, though, tends to be much more liberal on questions of authorship. No one expects that every word read off a prompter and uttered on the air by Couric or Brian Williams or Charlie Gibson was carefully weighed and chosen personally by that anchor, guzzling antacid and hunched over his or her Underwood like Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Writing – that’s what producers are for, silly.

Couric’s “Notebook” video, however, blew right past any recognizable journalistic boundary. The piece was delivered by the anchor as a personal commentary, beginning with: “I still remember when I got my first library card.”

The subsequent revelation that Couric apparently wrote neither those words nor any of the following ones raises an important question: Is it healthy to get your news from someone who’s so detached from what she tells viewers?

Is Couric a bit like newscaster Ron Burgundy in the movie “Anchorman,” whom a colleague tricks into uttering a profanity on the air merely by changing the verbiage on his teleprompter?

It’s obviously deceptive, said Edward Wasserman, the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, of Couric’s ghostwritten video. But to a certain extent the medium gives TV journalists a pass: “The audience becomes inured to a level of what is really deceit with respect to TV people.”

But is this entirely an editorial issue? That seems an important consideration as news organizations struggle to retain their audiences and engage with the Web.

It seems clear, in retrospect, that the “Notebook” items are meant to be marketing as much as they are journalism – a cheap way of keeping Couric in front of viewers during the 231/2 hours each day when “Evening News” isn’t on.

This is the media “cross-platforming” that makes the suits get all soft-eyed and dewy, and it’s what CBS hoped to use to vault the ratings for “Evening News” from third to first.

But as this latest gaffe makes clear, the benefits of cross-platforming are often nebulous, while the risks to journalistic credibility are all too real.

Williams, who writes his own items for “The Daily Nightly,” the blog for “NBC Nightly News,” sees the value of giving “Nightly News” junkies an online outlet, but said, “I’m talking to people who are already viewers. It’s an enhancement to the 22 minutes we’re on the air.”

Williams notes that online isn’t simply the casual branding arena that some old-media execs assume it is. It has trip wires and quicksand pits all its own. On the Web, “nothing ever goes away,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anyplace we can go and say, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter as much here.’”

CBS may be learning that the hard way.

Scott Collins writes on the TV industry for the Los Angeles Times.

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