Credit due on Deep Throat

Giving credit where credit is due is one of the principles that the press regularly ignores or, worse, intentionally flouts.

Take television news. Those people wake up in the morning and dive directly into the nation's major papers to find out what the news is. Later in the day, those stories show up on TV news broadcasts; all too rarely is the paper of origin acknowledged. TV news producers apparently are afraid their viewers would conclude that many of their stories originate elsewhere. Which would be true. Isn't truth what the goal is? I'm shocked.

And what about the print press, where most in-depth stories do originate? Well, newspapers and magazines do better on attribution than TV news but still fall short of being forthright and classy. Some papers will slap the logo "Exclusive" on a story that has appeared elsewhere. Others see themselves as so important and above-the-fray that they simply don't have to consider giving credit to the less-well-known journal that got there first. And sometimes the reporter worries that his or her star will be dimmed a little by an admission that some elements of the story had been published earlier.

This phenomenon was highlighted recently on Jim Romenesko's media website. David Corn, a highly regarded journalist for The Nation, complained that a Washington Post page-one story on June 20 about Mark Felt, the Deep Throat who helped the Post break the Watergate scandal 33 years ago, had imitated a story by Corn and colleague Jeff Goldberg that had appeared a week earlier. The Post story was by Michael Dobbs, an equally well-regarded journalist.

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Corn cited two documents from FBI archives that were central to both articles. Dobbs pointed out, accurately, that his piece was a much broader profile of Felt and said he had "unearthed" the same FBI documents before the Nation article came out. Dobbs told Timothy Noah, the Chatterbox columnist for Slate: "Somebody had sent me the Nation article and I had seen it. But I didn't pay very much attention to it because I was writing my own article."

It's quite true that Dobbs's article was more extensive and broke new ground, but the FBI documents were crucial to the piece—and the Corn-Goldberg duo had gotten them and their importance to the public first. Dobbs could easily have credited the Nation reporters for their coup and not have diminished in any way the merit of his article. My guess is that should he find himself in such a situation again, he will write the acknowledgment without thinking twice.

My purpose here is not to point fingers. If you could research the full press spectrum on any given day, I think you would find hundreds of examples of non-acknowledgement. The only question is whether we learn from these unclassy mistakes.

I can still remember when I made the mistake. I was reporting from Cambodia as a New York Times correspondent. It was 1973, when American planes, flying out of Thailand and the Pacific, were bombing Khmer Rouge positions pretty much around the clock. I wrote a story with the help of a friend, Fred Branfman, who had crucial tape recordings documenting that the bombing was being physically directed by Americans from a covert communications room inside the U.S. embassy—a violation of prohibitions enacted by Congress.

I knew that Sylvana Foa, working for UPI, had written a similar story not long before. But I thought to myself—in a moment of rationalization and hubris that may possibly ring a bell with Michael Dobbs—that my story was more comprehensive and better documented and therefore no reference to my colleague's UPI story was necessary.

It's always necessary.

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