Throwback Thursday: 4 Self-Serving Reasons Not to Cheat in a Journalism Course

If you bet the one-month line and took the under for “When would my department get its first confirmed case of plagiarism,” please feel free to collect your winnings at the nearest cashier’s window. A student who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with searchlight and a posse apparently turned into Ernest Hemingway in a discussion post for one of my colleague’s classes.

It was so obvious, even other students noticed this and were contacting the prof about it. The even dumber thing was that this discussion was worth TWO POINTS toward the final class grade. So, essentially, the kid put his grade, his class standing and his future at the university in jeopardy over 1/50th of a course outcome.

What was he thinking? Clearly not much.

To keep your students from making the same mistakes as this kid, here’s a look back at a classic post on why cheating in journalism is stupid:

4 Self-Serving Reasons Not to Cheat in a Journalism Course

At the beginning of each semester, most professors I know give some version of the “Don’t Cheat” lecture. We explain the university policies about cheating and how we can make your life so miserable that you will wish you had never been born. We outline the logical reasoning behind avoiding unethical behavior and try to guilt you into acting right.

And right about now is where we start to notice that none of that really sunk in for some of our students.

Somewhere between midterms and finals week is where I tend to find whatever cheating I’m likely to notice over the span of a semester. It’s always the same: The student who couldn’t write a sentence with a subject and a verb is suddenly putting Bob Woodward to shame. The kid who spent the last two weeks in our “draft” sessions with nothing done suddenly produces a magnum opus in two days. The story I get from a student that seems shockingly familiar for some reason, mainly because his roommate turned in the same thing last semester.

It’s also the same when the students are confronted. They go through all five stages of grief in about three minutes: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. It’s gotten so bad that I keep tissues hidden in my office for that exact moment when a student suddenly realizes there is no way out and tears begin flowing. (For the record, men cry as much or more than women do when the stuff hits the fan like this.)

Since journalism is always about telling people “What’s in it for me?”, consider these four self-serving reasons why you shouldn’t cheat, least of all in a journalism course:

  1. You have much worse odds of getting away with it: Students have come up with so many great ways of cheating on various tests, projects, quizzes and assignments, it gives me hope for the future in terms of innovation. There are the water bottle labels with the answers printed on them. There is the “phone/texting” thing that students have developed over the years. There are “cheat sheets” and “crib notes” written in places that defy logic.
    Many journalism classes, however, are performance based and skill structured, so it’s not about memorizing things and regurgitating them, so those tricks don’t always apply. Instead, students tend to plagiarize from published material, use stuff from sources that don’t exist or otherwise “improvise” their ways around their writing assignments and tests.
    Here’s the problem with that: Journalists and journalism professors (a.k.a. former journalists) are naturally suspicious, so they have a harder time believing that you managed to track down the governor for a sit-down interview on deadline. They are trained researchers, so they know how to fact check and verify stuff through a number of platforms beyond “TurnItIn.” They usually have connections with sources in the area, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them calling up a city council rep, a high school football coach or an administrator and asking, “Hey, did you have an interview with someone in my course and say XYZ?”
    The whole purpose of being a journalist is to dig past the BS veneer that people show us and get to the heart of the truth.
    We live for this. And trust me, our ability to dig is better than your ability to hide at this point in your career.
  2. You really piss us off and trust us, you don’t want that: When journalists dig into something, we are like a dog with a Frisbee: We just don’t let go. Most of the time, when someone lies to us, we are desperate to dig even deeper to determine how bad this is and what else that person might be lying about.
    We will be bound and determined to dig into EVERY, SINGLE, OTHER thing you have EVER written for us and see if there is ANYTHING you did that fits this pattern of plagiarism. We will talk to colleagues about you to see if you were in their classes and see if they had any inclination that you might not be producing work that is on the level. We will look to see what penalties are available and how far this can all go.
    The reason is that we operate in a field where trust is earned and all you have is your reputation. If you throw that all away over a crappy assignment in a single college course, what’s going to happen when you get out in the field? Even more, if you go out there with a degree from our institution and people know you had us as professors, how will that reflect on us when you do something this pathologically stupid on the job? Those kinds of thoughts keep a lot of us up at night, not out of fear but out of anger. We are not about to let our field slide into the Dumpster (or further into the Dumpster) because you cheated when you felt “overwhelmed” by your six extracurricular activities and the death of your goldfish. In most cases, professors will be far more forgiving if you essentially tell them everything up front when you can’t complete an assignment. If you cheat, we have a burning desire to make sure you don’t get away with it.
  3. Two degrees of separation: The concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” explains that we are all somehow connected to every other person on Earth through no more than six links. In the field of journalism, however, that linkage is a lot shorter.
    I have done no definitive work on this, but if I had to guess, I’d say those of us in journalism are probably operating within two or three degrees. Case in point happened this weekend at the college media convention I attended: I was reviewing a student newspaper from Florida when I mentioned that I had a number of former students working in the state. One of the students said that she was in frequent contact with an editor of a particular newspaper. I recognized the name immediately as one of my former students and did the old “humblebrag” thing about it. “Really?” the student asked, her eyes lighting up. “Could you tell her you met me and that I’m really interested in the paper?” She was a smart kid and I liked what I had read in her stories I was critiquing, so I said sure. I dashed off a simple email to my former student about this woman and moved on with life. Today, I got this message back: 

    Vince,

    Small world!

    We are considering her for a spring internship. Your recommendation just put her at the top of list.

    Hope you are doing well.

    I honestly don’t know if my email helped or if maybe the editor was trying to make me feel good about myself, but the underlying point remains: In the most random place and set of circumstances possible in journalism, I was linked to two people in the field like that. This kind of connection is invaluable in our field if the word on the street about you is good. If you plagiarize and get caught, the word on the street spreads as well and, simply put, everybody in this field seems to know everybody else somehow. The “A” you got on that plagiarized assignment better be worth knowing that you will never get a job because everywhere you go, someone will know someone who knows about it.

  4. You will never really recover: My dad was fond of telling me that if I ever planned to steal something, I shouldn’t steal a candy bar from a store. Instead, I should steal the whole store, as in when the owner came back the next day, all that was left would be a basement and some wires sticking out of the ground. The reason Dad had for this was simple: If you steal something, no matter how big or small, you’re a thief. If you’re going to steal and ruin your life, you might as well do it for something that matters.
    Obviously, his point wasn’t that I should go big or go home, but rather that if I took that path of thievery, I’d never be able to recover everything I lost because of the stupid choice I made. The same is true in plagiarism, cheating and more.
    The famous cases are always the ones your professors roll out for you during the semester: Stephen Glass, the wunderkind of the New Republic, who falsified dozens of stories before being forced out in disgrace. He is now a graduate of law school who still can’t practice law because of his prior transgressions. Jayson Blair, the rising star at the New York Times, who supposedly broke stories about the D.C. sniper case, turned out to be a serial liar. He now lives in Virginia and said he knows he could never go back to journalism because of the trust he broke. Janet Cooke, who wrote a compelling tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict name Jimmy, returned the Pulitzer Prize she won after it turned out she made him up. Today, as the story linked above notes, she lives in the U.S. and works in a field not associated with writing.
    Beyond those “big names” are the day-in, day-out foul ups that cost people everything. I was on an ethics panel last week when one of my fellow panelists told a story of a student who made things up or plagiarized content. His name was so clearly bad in the field, he ended up legally changing it.
    I still have the “ethical agreement” one of our writers signed at the student paper shortly before he made up an entire softball story. We only caught him because someone on the sports desk was roommates with a guy who was dating a softball player and she mentioned it in passing. I have no idea what ever happened to that guy after we fired him, but I do pull out that agreement from time to time and show students. His name is etched in their minds as a cautionary tale.

Interestingly for me, I find that this kind of stuff happens most with my upper-level classes. Freshmen and sophomores screw up occasionally by bumping into a problem when they don’t know any better. However, it’s the seniors who are getting ready to graduate that actively cheat. Why? My theories vary.
Look, we all get it. Everyone in journalism has felt the pressure at one point in time. Deadline is approaching, we get caught short and we figure, “If I can just cut this corner this one time, I’ll survive.” The truth is, it’s not worth it. If you screw up that assignment, the worst that happens to you is that you fail that one piece or that one test. If you cheat on that assignment, everything gets so much worse.

Reporter/source dating, on-the-record/off-the-record and Filak’s First Rule of Holes: A look at “The Biden White House’s First Media Scandal”

If there’s one group of people I have complete and total sympathy for, it is single people who would like to find a meaningful relationship with another human being in today’s world.

Between the digital media pitfalls that exist around every corner (social media stalkers, potential dates finding the stupid tweets you put out seven years ago, the sharing of “personal photos” that get airdropped to the entire world) and the insane life schedules (work, family, health), I can’t think of anything more stressful than trying to connect with a new person in hopes of building a life right now.

And that’s not even counting the pandemic. Exactly how do you end a “socially distanced” date? (I can imagine the conversations with friends afterward: “So when he elbow-bumped you, was it like a REAL elbow-bump or was it like he just kind of felt awkward when you went in for the bump and just reciprocated?”)

(Side note: Amy and I have a mutually agreed upon pre-nup that says if one of us forces the other one back onto the dating market for any reason other than death, we give up our rights to any marital property. Plus, I would get to burn her knitting stash or she would get to set fire to my baseball cards, just to be mean. THAT’S how scary the dating pool seems to us…)

So, even though we’ve talked about the concept of source-reporter relationships here as something to avoid when possible, I get why it’s hard for two people like (now former) White House deputy press secretary T.J. Ducklo and political journalist Alexi McCammond to give up the connection due to work entanglements. She had been covering the Biden campaign and he had been promoting it, so once romance entered the picture, things had to change.

According to a profile on the pair in People magazine, they both decided to play by the ethical rules of the field:

“We both realized we both felt the same way,” Ducklo, who joined the Biden White House as a deputy press secretary, tells PEOPLE. “We’re both really happy, and we wanted to do it the right way.”

That meant telling their bosses. An Axios spokeswoman says McCammond, who joined the site in 2017, told her editors about the relationship in November “and asked to be taken off of the Biden beat.” She was reassigned to covering progressive lawmakers in Congress and progressives across the U.S. as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, the spokeswoman says.

“We stand behind her and her coverage,” the spokeswoman says of McCammond, describing her as “a valued member of the Axios team.”

For her part, McCammond says, “When my personal life had the potential to interfere with my work, I didn’t think twice about sharing my happiness in November with Axios that I’d found someone in TJ who shows up for me in a way I’d only hoped for.”

While the People profile was apparently fair game, Ducklo appeared to have a problem with Politico writing about the relationship, according to a Vanity Fair article:

The confrontation began on Inauguration Day, January 20, after (Politico reporter Tara) Palmeri, a coauthor of Politico’s Playbook, contacted McCammond for comment while one of her male colleagues left a message for Ducklo, according to the sources. Ducklo subsequently called a Playbook editor to object to the story, but was told to call the Playbook reporters with his concerns. But instead of calling the male reporter who initially contacted him, Ducklo tried to intimidate Palmeri by phone in an effort to kill the story. “I will destroy you,” Ducklo told her, according to the sources, adding that he would ruin her reputation if she published it.

The article goes on to say that Ducklo made derogatory and sexist comments in an “off-the-record” conversation with Palmeri, noting that she had been jealous of his relationship with McCammond. He also used language I’m not allowed to use here, but let’s just say Ducklo said he believed that McCammond was of a greater sexual interest to at least one other man than Palmeri was.

The White House, which initially complained that Palmeri broke the “off-the-record” agreement with Ducklo, announced last week that Ducklo has been suspended for one week for his comments and Ducklo has issued a formal apology to Palmeri and her media outlet.

Over the weekend, Ducklo resigned from his position and issued a formal apology for his actions.

This situation didn’t have to get to this point, so let’s go through a couple points that might help you if you land in a similar romantic entanglement:

DO THE RIGHT THING: The one thing that I can’t stress enough is that initially Ducklo and McCammond DID do the right thing when they became an item. They went to their bosses, talked it out and got everyone on the same page.

This isn’t an easy thing to do, and I can speak from experience. In two of my journalistic stops, I was romantically engaged with a person who was working on the opposite side of the fence: Once it was a city council rep when I was at the State Journal and once it was a police dispatcher when I was the crime editor in Missouri. In both cases, I came clean, but in the former, I didn’t really say anything until we were engaged. (Not exactly bright, but I also wasn’t DIRECTLY on that beat… And yes, that sound you hear is a hair splitting…) In the other case, she got the job after I already had mine, so it was a “ground-level” discussion and everything panned out fine.

As much as this is an awkward situation, it’s like removing a Band-Aid: Grab a corner and yank. You’ll be much better off.

 

CHIVALRY MIGHT BE DEAD, BUT STUPIDITY LIVES ON: The idea of defending a fair maiden from the evil trolls who might do her harm is a swoon-worthy concept in fairy tales. Calling up a reporter and threatening her for reporting on your relationship is dumber than garlic-flavored toothpaste.

Something tells me that McCammond can more than hold her own against pretty much anything anyone tosses at her. She’s a veteran reporter of MSNBC and Axios, so she’s used to political hatchet jobs (which assumes this Politico piece would be one, which isn’t fair to Politico at this point). She’s also probably dealt with a ton of sexism, racism and misogyny as a woman of color who works for national media outlets, so she’s not going to wilt like a magnolia in a rainstorm if someone starts saying mean things about her and her boyfriend in public.

The not-so-smooth moves started when Ducklo called Palmeri’s editor first, in a conversation that just screams, “Hey, bro, get that little lady to back up off me a bit, ‘kay?” When the editor did the right journalism thing, and told Ducklo to call the people working on the story, Ducklo swung and missed again. He didn’t return the call of the MALE co-author who was working on the story, but rather decided to go after the FEMALE co-author with his puffer-fish routine. I can’t imagine exactly why Ducklo thought this was a necessary move or a good idea, but it was clear that he wasn’t thinking a whole heck of a lot.

Having said all this, I have no difficulty imagining how Amy would react if she found out in a very public way that I called up her supervising nurse and told the woman to back off of my beloved or I’ll go all “Ivan Drago in ‘Rocky IV'” on your ass.

My imagination leads me to sleeping in the milk house for a week, protecting my sports stuff from a fire.

 

THERE ARE LIMITS TO OFF-THE-RECORD CONVERSATIONS: When I think of how on-the-record/off-the-record conversations work, journalists and sources tend think of  as being like a safety measure for both people involved.

I tend to see them this way:

 

In other words, the concept of off-the-record can protect some vital areas, but it’s a vest, not the Iron Man suit. If a source tells you, off-the-record, that they plan to murder a school bus full of children after this interview, you should strongly consider calling the cops. I don’t think there will be any serious journalists writing op-eds on your lack of ethical standards.

Journalists and sources should ALWAYS work out exactly what on-the-record and off-the-record mean before going off of the record. This is where you decide what can be used and how that source should be referred to, among other things. It’s for both of your benefits.

An experienced press aide like Ducklo should know that. He should also know that threatening a reporter’s career and reputation would clearly fall outside of the bounds of what she’d dutifully keep to herself, for fear of revealing a double-super-secret conversation she had a source. He crossed a line and that was going to become public and painful.

Which leads us nicely into the final point…

 

FILAK’S FIRST RULE OF HOLES: As we’ve explained numerous times on the blog, Filak’s First Rule of Holes is simple: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

Ducklo and McCammond knew from the jump that this kind of relationship was going to garner attention, which is why they played by the rules and made the right moves immediately. They even participated in the media circus part of it, granting a heck of a lot of access to People for that profile.

(Say what you want about the quality of journalism in People or Politico or whatever, but if you want people to respect your privacy, the best way to do that is NOT to be featured in a publication with a circulation of nearly 100 million.)

Even if it wasn’t an “open secret” as Politico mentioned in its Playbook coverage, it was now out there and people were going to figure it out. The best thing to do was to realize you’re standing in a little hole, of your own making, and decide to let the chips fall where they may. This is the kind of story that goes away in a half a news cycle and involves, no personal offense to either of them,  relatively B-list folks in the entirety of the political machine.

Instead, every step Ducklo made came with the sound of a shovel hitting the dirt, digging deeper and deeper. It intensified the scrutiny on the relationship when he went after Palmeri. It extended the news cycle when the word got out about the threats and his assessment of her as a woman and a journalist. It forced the issue to become a talking point for everyone out there from journalistic groups of great importance to twerps like me who run a blog.

(It also basically wrote the headline for half the people out there. How do you not hear the headline in “I will destroy you” when you’re saying it? Also, what’s that rules about not picking fights with people who buy ink by the barrel?)

In the end, this, too, will pass, but if you want to make sure it passes more quickly if you end up in this spot, just remember that rule about holes.

 

Do us all a favor: Laugh at your professor

Monday was the first day in almost two months that I’d been in physical proximity of the students I was teaching, and I got something valuable that I didn’t know I had been missing.

Laughter.

We were about 10 minutes into an 8 a.m. session that had five students in it, due in large part to social distancing protocols and online-only opt-out kids, when I started to explain something or other and I totally flubbed it.

One of the kids chuckled. I smiled and tried to work through it again before I paused and told them this:

“Look,” I said. “It’s going to be weird for you and weird for me this year. You all haven’t been in a classroom for somewhere between two and six months and I haven’t been in front of this many people in a while. The only thing I got going for me is that my wife made sure I shaved, wore a nice shirt and cut my hair so I didn’t come here looking like an unemployed Muppet.”

Suddenly, they all started cracking up, apparently imagining me with an unintentional mullet, begging them for spare change in Elmo’s voice.

The old saying that laughter is the best medicine might not be true for everyone, but it was for all of us in that moment. The pall lifted and the awkwardness and fear seemed to dissipate for that hour. When the class ended, the students wiped down their areas with anti-bacterial towelettes and sprayed down their chairs, but they kept chatting and laughing about various things.

For a fleeting moment, it felt OK to be there.

The rest of the day flew by, with each new set of students going through the same process of trying to figure out what “normal” was going to look like. I made efforts to crack a joke or two at my own expense. (“I’ve now said the same thing four class periods in a row,” I told my last class. “If I’m saying something to you multiple times, just treat me like you treat great-grandpa at Thanksgiving when he asks, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I was stationed in Berlin after World War II?’ Just let me roll on and pretend this is all new to you.”)

There is a hope in a lot of us right now that this will be the last semester of social distancing, masks and a yearlong pandemic. We see some numbers going down, even as others go up. We see videos on the news of people getting needles stuck in their arms and we eagerly await our turn. We try to remember what it was like to be in a roomful of people and not feel palpable anxiety.

Throughout this, I’ve told my students that I know they’re dealing with way more than anyone should expect of them: Double shifts at grocery stores because other people called in sick, weekly medical tests and online classes in subjects that really shouldn’t be online. I can’t make a lot of these things better, I explained, so my goal is to try my best not to make their lives worse.

Not exactly something inspirational to write on a vision board or needlepoint onto a couch pillow, but it’s the best I have, I told them.

In the mean time, I’m going to do my best to keep things light. I want to hear them laugh at the lame “Dad Jokes” they have heard a dozen times. I want them to snicker as they think about the misplaced modifier in a lead that makes it sound like a burglar has threatened a pair of underpants. I want that sound of muffled snorts when they think of what a homeless elf would dress like and that I’ve compared some of my better clothing choices to that caricature.

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think I’m alone in that desire for human amusement. Sure, there are professors out there who view everything as dark and important and would admonish people for finding humor in ANYTHING in the time of a pandemic.

(A student came to me last term, telling me about one such person. I asked, “Wow. Was this guy born an (EXPLETIVE) or did he take lessons to get this way?” I quickly looked up the guy on our faculty database. “Oh,” I told the kid. “He got a Ph.D. in sociology from (NAME INSTITUTION). I guess the answer to that question is ‘both.'”)

For a lot of us, we just want to know we’re connecting on a human level, so if  you feel that vibe in the room, do us all a favor.

Laugh at us. We sure could use it.

Wall Street Journal opinion editor Paul A. Gigot defends Joseph Epstein’s column on Dr. Jill Biden, makes it clear he has yet to learn “Filak’s First Rule of Holes.”

Filak’s First Rule of Holes states: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

It’s pretty clear the folks at the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section haven’t learned this one yet.

In reacting to  the outrage prompted by Joseph Epstein’s column on Dr. Jill Biden, opinion editor Paul A. Gigot settled on a strategy that basically said, “Hey, kiddo, you wanna hand me that shovel over there?”

Gigot, who has once again proved that winning a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always good at journalism, decided that it would not only be good to avoid apologizing for Epstein’s anti-intellectual and misogynistic rant, but to actively support it. In his myopic viewpoint, any negative reaction was clearly just a political hatchet job conducted by the Bidens alone to drown out negative stories on their family:

Why go to such lengths to highlight a single op-ed on a relatively minor issue? My guess is that the Biden team concluded it was a chance to use the big gun of identity politics to send a message to critics as it prepares to take power. There’s nothing like playing the race or gender card to stifle criticism. It’s the left’s version of Donald Trump’s “enemy of the people” tweets.

There’s a saying in Wall Street circles regarding bad investors who are perfect foils to bet against: “Often wrong, never in doubt.” If Gigot’s defense of Epstein’s piece isn’t a perfect example of this phrase, I don’t know what would be.

Since I’m involved in a “sweet racket” where I only work six months out of the year and never put in eight hours of day, I might as well put aside everything else I’m doing to pick apart this rectally based argumentation.

First, this isn’t a minor issue. Sexism and anti-intellectualism are two of the more troubling things in today’s society. The fact you see this as a couple “uppity broads” and a few “academic twerps” getting their doctoral noses out of joint means you’re either actively avoiding those two bigger issues or you’re too stupid to see them. Neither position is a good one from which to launch an argument.

Second, this isn’t a political thing. The reason I (and many others) actively dislike politics is because people like you manage to view EVERYTHING through this tiny lens alone. This is what allows you to dismiss things you don’t like without having to consider any other position, including the concept that your writer was just wrong.

I didn’t drill a ton of holes in Epstein’s piece because I’m part of the George-Soros-based-QAnon-fighting-ultra-liberal-conspiracy-based new world order. The mother ship didn’t send me a signal letting me know it was time to pipe up and attack an octogenarian who wishes he could perpetually live in an era where he could call any woman he wants “cutie buns.” I wrote what I wrote because this guy was an idiot, whether he was telling it to Jill Biden, Jill Munroe or Jill of “Jack and Jill.”

Third, when you mention that these complaints are an attempt to “stifle criticism,” I wonder if you really know what the word “criticism” means. Epstein’s piece is to quality criticism what Velveeta is to cheese: They’re only similar if you are really desperate to see them as such.

Nevertheless, you persisted…

The outrage is overwrought because, whether you agree or disagree, Mr. Epstein’s piece was fair comment. The issue of Jill Biden’s educational honorific isn’t new. As long ago as 2009, the Los Angeles Times devoted a story to the subject. From the piece by Robin Abcarian: “Joe Biden, on the campaign trail, explained that his wife’s desire for the highest degree was in response to what she perceived as her second-class status on their mail. ‘She said, “I was so sick of the mail coming to Sen. and Mrs. Biden. I wanted to get mail addressed to Dr. and Sen. Biden.” That’s the real reason she got her doctorate,’ he said.”

I guess you were sick the day at Dartmouth that they taught you what fair comment was. As a defense against libel, sure, it works here. I don’t think people are claiming the Bidens have a legal claim against Epstein or the paper for this column. Even in the case of “fair comment,” people have the right to get upset about comments other people make. If you think that people were overly mean to Epstein, here’s a look at what the Internet did to a 19-year-old University of Buffalo student when she wrote that women shouldn’t get tattoos.  In short, people like Epstein have a right to their opinion, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to quietly enjoy it.

In any case, you follow your “fair comment” argument by saying the media has been all over this issue for decades. You support that with an anecdote that in no way supports that position. Comparing how a reporter relayed a comment the president-elect made back in 2009 about Jill Biden’s quest to become a doctor to Epstein’s column in which he crapped all over her effort and her degree is disingenuous at best.

And, yet, you persisted:

Many readers said Mr. Epstein’s use of “kiddo” is demeaning, but then Joe Biden is also fond of that locution. In his 2012 Democratic convention speech he even used it to refer to his wife in the context of his many proposals of marriage: “I don’t know what I would have done, kiddo, had you on that fifth time said no.” You can buy a T-shirt on the internet with Mr. Biden’s image pointing a finger saying “That’s where you’re wrong, kiddo!”

I can’t seem to locate any information on your personal marital status, Paul, but as someone who has taken the plunge, let me  fill you in on something. If Joe Biden wants to call his wife “kiddo” and Jill Biden is OK with it, that’s fine because they’re in a lifelong relationship of a special nature. They also probably kiss here and there, which seems to be fine as well, because, again, y’know, happily married and lovingly connected.

This doesn’t give everyone carte blanche to do this.

Here’s maybe a better explanation for you:  If I come home tonight, kiss Amy and say, “How are you doing today, sweetheart,” it’s probably fine. If you roll up to my house and do that to Amy, she’s going to knock the snot out of you.

And, yet, you persisted…

Mr. Epstein also infuriated dozens of educators defending their doctorates. (See the nearby letters.) But that status isn’t sacrosanct or out-of-bounds for debate. Mr. Epstein’s point applies to men and women and his piece also mocked men for their honorary degrees. Mrs. Biden is now America’s most prominent doctorate holder and is taking a leading role in education policy. She can’t be off-limits for commentary.

By the way, the Journal editorial page’s longtime style is to use “Dr.” only when referring to medical doctors. Henry Kissinger gets a “Mr.” Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, is Mrs. Cheney despite her Ph.D.

Man, can you even SEE the top of the hole  you’re digging at this point? Do we need to lower some water or oxygen tanks to you at this point?

Look, it’s not that we’re infuriated that you don’t like our doctorates.  And you’re right that the importance of a doctorate isn’t sacrosanct or out-of-bounds for debate, but this wasn’t a debate or a discussion about the importance of higher levels of education. It’s that this human sphincter took it upon himself to essentially say to the incoming first lady, “Look, sweetie, stop thinking so highly of yourself. You’re not a REAL doctor.”

Jill Biden is clearly not “off-limits” for commentary. If she makes a policy statement, comment on it. If the administration does something and she has a role, comment on it. However, I have to imagine you can actually see some line out there, somewhere, that the Journal wouldn’t cross simply because you won’t “limit commentary” on Jill Biden. If not, I’m actively awaiting a “Doesn’t Jill Biden have a SMOKING HOT body for a woman of her age?” column that one of your writers is probably getting ready to visit upon us all.

And, not that you don’t know this, but this isn’t about style. The WSJ can use whatever style it wants, just like AP, the New York Times and a dozen other media outlets. This was never a question of who gets what treatment in a news story.

And with all of the grace of a drunk falling down of stairs, you concluded…

If you disagree with Mr. Epstein, fair enough. Write a letter or shout your objections on Twitter. But these pages aren’t going to stop publishing provocative essays merely because they offend the new administration or the political censors in the media and academe. And since it’s a time to heal, we’ll give the Biden crowd a mulligan for their attacks on us.

Calling Epstein’s piece a “provocative essay” is like calling a Ford Pinto “a hot car with a little something extra.”

The problem you face here, Mr. Gigot — Paul — P-Diddy — Paulie No Nuts– Sweetie Muffin– is that you have the right concept (don’t let politicians and harpies force you into silence) but the wrong hill on which to make that stand (a really lousy column, delivered by a clueless writer, that is insulting to thousands of people, many of whom probably don’t like anything Biden-related).

Epstein’s thoughts reek of arrogance, sexism and personal animus and really have no place on the pages of a national publication. They should barely be tolerated at the local tavern after an old-timer has six beers in him and starts bitching about “femi-Nazis who are ruining the country I fought for!”

Your position, that this is somehow a political conspiracy built by people trying to cow your publication into writing only positive Biden stories, makes you sound like a grumpy old man who has spent way too much time watching spy thrillers at 3 a.m. on basic cable.

You don’t have to be a liberal to think Epstein’s work was stupid. You don’t need to feel entitled to a title to think the Wall Street Journal should have flushed this turd before it saw the light of day. You don’t have to be Team Biden to think your defense of this was either purposefully ignorant or painfully unaware.

Once you climb out of that hole you’ve dug, maybe you give this situation another look.

Confessions of an unpretentious, anti-academia professor

Over the course of the past nine months, we’ve all endured the pandemic of COVID-19 as well as the changes to our daily lives as educators and students. What I have come to notice more and more is that because we all seem to be facing mortality in a more direct way than ever before, people seem ready to rage against every microscopic thing at the drop of a hat.

In addition, it seems that most of the faux outrage and pearl-clutching behavior comes from people who should have a better sense of reality, namely folks involved in higher education. I would like to attribute it to the stress and anxiety associated with the coronavirus outbreak, but I think a lot of it has been there all along. There has long been a demarcation between people who teach and work at universities and college and “academics,” who seem to think they exist on a higher plane of reality than the rest of human kind and need to “set other people straight.”

Truth be told, no matter how many books I wrote, degrees I earned, studies I conducted or symposiums I attended, I never embraced the “academic” lifestyle. Sure, I liked having an office, a decent health plan and the ability to hear people call me “professor” from time to time, but I never forgot who I was or where I came from. I’m basically just another person who found something they liked and got lucky enough that it led to a career. Had it not been for crossing paths with a few crucial people, I might have been an auto mechanic, a cops reporter or a factory worker. Knowing that has always kept me from getting too full of myself or thinking that my excrement lacks odoriferous qualities. (Yeah, that was a bit much…)

With that in mind, here are a list of things I have actively done, said, considered or otherwise found myself thinking  as a professor that only make sense if  you understand the self-important, pseudo-intellectual, easily offended, drama-twerp reality that is “academia” and the people who embrace it:

  • When I first meet people around where I live, they often ask what I do. I tell them “I work at the U,” with the hope they’ll think I’m a janitor or facilities manager. Their view of what professors are does not jibe with what I want them to think of me.

 

  • I noticed an inverse correlation between the human decency of professors and the percentage of the final grade they assign to final exams or final projects. Students have told me some professors value a final up to almost 70 percent of their total grade. That’s insane, but that’s “academia” for some folks. I put as little emphasis on final exams and final projects as possible, making them count for about 15 percent of the total grade at most when I can get away with it. I find that keeping the percentage lower tends to relax the students a bit more, especially because they’re also working on final projects and final exams for other classes. It also takes pressure off me when I’m burnt to a crisp and grading a ton of papers. I worry less about each point I take off or give back because I don’t feel like I’m disarming a bomb.

 

  • When I read postings on Facebook groups for academics, I am constantly reminded why I hate academics. I forgot who said it, but the line about how the fights in academia are so extreme because the stakes are so low always rings true there. I have to constantly remind myself not to post something about them needing to grab a ratchet and loosen their sphincters a few turns because a) that would be undignified and b) most of those people wouldn’t know what a ratchet is.

 

  • I often refer to students as “my kids,” and it bugs me when people tell me not to because they see it as a somehow insulting to the students. First, bite me. Second, I do this because, no matter how old they get or where they go, there won’t be anything I won’t do for them. Once you become one of “my kids,” you’re there for life. Just ask the students I’ve taught who are now in their 40s or 50s and have  spent half their lives still connected to me in some truly meaningful ways.

 

  • If I have a choice between helping one of my kids and doing something that fits within the formal rigors of expected pedagogy, well, that’s an easy choice: I’m helping the kid. Nobody ever died and said, “No matter what happened, I’m so glad I abided by the strictest interpretation of academic rules.” Except for maybe people who need to have their sphincters loosened a turn or two.

 

  • When forced to attend multi-disciplinary meetings, I look around the room carefully when someone tells a fairly innocuous joke. I look at all the people around the table to see who stiffens and who doesn’t and I take note of the stiffies. If anyone notes sternly the way in which this is highly inappropriate because it insults (fill in the blank), I make note of that as well. I then guess which departments they work in and spend half the meeting looking them up through the U’s database. I’m usually dead on, or at least one of my top three guesses are right.

 

  • I would guess that about 90 percent of academics fall into one of two categories: Those who are insulted by nothing because they have no sense of anything outside of their discipline and those who are actively waiting to hear something potentially insulting and then loudly castigate everyone else for such things existing in this “plane of higher learning.” The other 10 percent usually came to higher ed after working a job in which we spent time around actual humans, so we tend to function a bit differently.

 

  • I find “woke” academics who employ guilt in Facebook discussions over petty squabbles they’ve turned into land wars totally adorable. I grew up Catholic, spent 12 years in Catholic school (much of it where nuns were involved) and remain an active Catholic. Guilt is the milieu in which I live and breathe. It’s like trying to discombobulate a fish by getting it wet.

 

  • Dealing with academics who begin every discussion by outlining their educational credentials has always made me feel like I needed to carry around a pocket full of quarters:

 

  • I fully support my female colleagues who engaged in the “Dr.” movement a few years back, where women added that term to their social media handles, academic emails and more to indicate their academic level of achievement. They take more shit than I think anyone should simply because men feel inferior around smarter women. I’ve worked for more women than men and most of my best bosses were women.

 

  • Conversely, I find it ridiculous when Ph.D. or Ed.D. academics (usually men) demand that EVERYONE call them “doctor,” as opposed to “professor,” or even “dean.” As I once explained to the superintendent of schools in Fond du Lac who required such formality of all creatures, I’m proud of my Ph.D. and I know he’s proud of his Ed.D., but ain’t neither one of us getting called into surgery tonight.

 

  • I have been blessed to work with a lot of students who are farm kids, first-gen college students and those who are attending school on a GI Bill and for some reason, we tend to get along pretty well because we’re honest with each other in a way academics tend not to be. I think it’s because there’s a shared sense that the world is full of hard stuff, so trying to make things harder for no real reason doesn’t really serve a purpose. Or that after you spend your day ankle-deep in cow manure, you can much more easily detect professors who are full of it.

 

  • I don’t get a ton of complaints about final grades and I attribute that to some really good upbringing  by the parents of my students. My friends at other universities get a lot of threats about how “you will be hearing from my parents” when students don’t get the grades they want. I once asked one of my small-town farm-kid students, “If you went home and told your mom that she needed to call me and demand that your grade was changed so you could pass my class, what would she say?” The kid paused for a minute and then she looked right at me and said, “My mom would kick my ass twice. Once for f—ing up and once for telling her to call you.”

 

  • One of the best ways to get me to do the exact opposite of what you want me to do is to ascribe to my behavior something that most sane humans would not consider logical or fair. In short, I’m calling it a “manhole” when I’m yelling out to you because I think that’s the best way to tell you what you’re about to fall into and die, not because I’m supporting the hetero-normative, patriarchal system that is using nomenclature to create a permanent underclass.

 

  • I can already think of at least a half dozen people who are furiously typing a six-page email to me, denouncing that last statement.

 

  • Humor is an honest coping mechanism for a lot of people. There’s a reason that people like Richard Pryor were so funny, and it was because humor helped keep them deal with a lot of dark stuff. Sometimes, when I’m telling a joke, I need to laugh more than anyone else does. If someone is making a joke or sharing a humorous anecdote, you should feel free to laugh even if it’s not that funny. If it might be insulting, but it’s still tolerable, let it go.

 

  • And finally, whenever I find myself in the middle of one of those “academic” shit fights that tend to show up in administrative town-hall meetings or on Facebook threads, I can hear my father’s voice in my head, reminding me that “Educated doesn’t always mean smart.”

Happy Birthday, Mom: Four things my mother taught me that might help you, too

Back when we didn’t have to socially distance, Mom and I caught a Paul McCartney concert that was absolutely amazing.

(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode.

Also, if this or anything else I’ve ever done has helped you in any way, please feel free to wish my mom a happy birthday in the comments section. I’m sure it would be appreciated. -VFF)


Six months ago, I had to find a way to celebrate my dad’s birthday virtually, thanks in large part to the emerging pandemic and the fear associated with climbing case numbers in Wisconsin.

No way, I thought at the time, this is going to impact Mom’s birthday in November. I wasn’t optimistic enough to assume we’d have a cure by then, but I figured we’d have some sort of control over this thing, mitigating its spread or at least keeping the numbers low.

This is why I don’t get paid to prognosticate.

Numbers are skyrocketing, especially here in Wisconsin and ICU beds are packed to the gills. It also seems like the disease keeps getting closer and closer to us, with more people at Amy’s work testing positive and various family and friends either testing positive or locking down thanks to close contact.

The governor of our state is essentially telling people, “Stay the hell home as much as you can. And if you want to see your family for Thanksgiving, buy a Swanson’s Hungry Man turkey platter and hook up a Zoom call.”

The same 100 miles of I-41 separate me from my folks that did back in March, although it now seems so much longer and bleaker. I held on to Mom’s birthday card until this weekend, planning to sneak down there and throw it to her from a six-foot distance across a frozen backyard. Then, I got a text from Amy saying ANOTHER person she was in contact with tested positive.

I put the card in the mail the next day.

In what is a rather perverse irony, as much as I miss my mother and I know Mom wants to see me, the ability to persist through this giant crap taco known as 2020 was instilled deeply in me by my mother over a lifetime of love and lessons.

So, without further ado, here are four things my mother taught me in life that might be helpful to you, too, as you try to hang in there for as long as it takes:

 

You’re tougher than you think you are, so pick yourself up and get back to work: The kitchen table in every house I ever occupied served as an important place for the family. It was where we ate, sure, but it was where we had family discussions, where we paid the bills, where we did our homework, where we worked through important business and where we just talked out whatever needed to be talked out.

When I was in college, I would come home on a Friday and sit at the table  and talk to my mom about whatever was kicking my ass that day, week or month. Mom would have the ironing board propped up and she’d be plowing through a massive pile of wrinkled laundry as she listened to whatever was happening.

She didn’t always understand exactly why I was so upset about something or why I thought the way I did about the problem at hand. (Truth be told, I was probably being way more of a drama queen than whatever I was complaining about required me to be…) Still, she listened and asked questions and poked back when I went too far into the “woe is me” realm of self-pity.

In each discussion, I found that Mom somehow helped me realize that the problem I brought wasn’t insurmountable or that the impossible task could be done if I’d just work through it. She always told me she loved me, but she never blew sunshine up my keester. She gave me practical advice, helped me see things in a way I hadn’t and set me back on the path I needed to walk.

In short, she told me, “You’re not beaten. Get up. You are tougher than you think you are.”

And she was always right. And still is.

 

Use your gifts to help others as often as possible: Each year of her 45-year teaching career, it seemed, Mom would go back to her school and there would be at least one new teacher who looked as lost as a kid who got separated from their parents during Black Friday at Walmart. In the “teams” and “partners” that the schools used over the years to group the faculty, Mom constantly found herself paired with someone that had about six months of student teaching under their belt and a terrified look on their face.

It would have been so easy for her to have a “Crash Davis grouse session” each time she got paired with a newbie and had to start all over again, explaining everything from the location of the teachers lounge through to how to instill classroom discipline among a throng of hormonally challenged pre-teens. Instead, she found a way to get the best out of these people, giving them ample access to her materials, her lessons and, above all else, her experience.

Mom had a gift for being there for other people in the exact way they need it. It’s something that I always wanted to do, but it’s still something I’ve yet to master. In watching Mom operate, I realized this is part skill, part art and part gift.

What I have been able to do, however, is mimic her giving spirit in this area. When the pandemic hit, I had friends and colleagues in a panic over what to do or how to handle assignments, so I stopped everything I was doing to throw together the Corona Hotline page for journalism instructors. The fact that other people were struggling and I had a line on how to fix those struggles meant it was my responsibility to do something to help them. It’s also the reason I volunteer to critique newspapers, visit classrooms, speak at conventions and more.

If I could help someone, especially because I’d been lucky enough to have a gift that made it possible, well, I better damned well do it. That’s how I was raised.

 

Don’t let others dictate the terms of your life: If others were allowed to set the parameters of how my mother’s life were to play out, she would have been a wonderful housewife who would have raised a kid in a duplex and maybe seen a few of our 50 states while visiting random family members during the summers.

Even that might have been a bit much. The legendary family story had Mom and Dad explaining to my mother’s parents that they wanted to get married, only to be told, “You can’t right now. We need to buy new furniture.”

Instead, she spent 45 years teaching literal generations of kids in Cudahy, Wisconsin, having earned a college education  during the early years of her marriage to my father. She wanted a college degree, so she fought for it. She wanted to teach, so she made it happen.

She has visited Canada, Mexico, Germany, Greece, Italy, England, France, Singapore and probably a dozen other places I’m forgetting, traveling with family and friends to see some of the greatest things this world has ever produced. She always came home and shared her photos and stories with as many people as possible (see the point above) and reveling in the opportunities to learn and grow.

She also spent 53 years (and counting) married to my father, outlasting the furniture that once populated my grandparents’ living room.

It would have been so easy for this shy daughter of a police officer to acquiesce to the demands of other people, particularly growing up in a small town during a time in which norms dictated actions. However, she decided that she had one life and she was going to use it as she saw fit. She wasn’t about to let other people tell her “no” for no good reason.

Her courage served as a model for my life.

The first journalism teacher I ever had the displeasure of meeting told me that I would never be a journalist and I probably wouldn’t be much of anything unless I learned a trade so I could provide for a family.

My undergraduate academic adviser and it seemed like half the student media world told me it was a fool’s errand to try to bring the Daily Cardinal student newspaper back from the brink of insolvency.

My doctoral adviser told me I should look for a high-level research institution so I could do scholarship and avoid dealing with undergraduate writing classes.

In each case, and dozens more, people thought they knew better than I did about what I should or shouldn’t be doing. In each case, I would politely nod my head and then go out and do what I knew I should do. Like Mom, I wasn’t going to let the expectations of people who didn’t have to live my life determine how I would go about living it.

In the end, that sense of self-evaluation gave me the most wonderful life possible.

 

Love what you do, no matter what: For her entire teaching career, Mom taught grade school and middle school students in one school district. Some people would wonder why she hadn’t earned a master’s degree, “moved up” to the high school and taught there. At the very least, why not bounce around to several districts and jack up your earnings and value?

Others, including her own father, thought she should have climbed the ladder, becoming an assistant principal, then a principal and maybe even a superintendent.

I’m glad she didn’t do any of these things because she essentially taught me to love what I do, no matter what.

She easily could have gotten a master’s out of the 1,923 academic credits she seemed to amass over the decades of “continuation learning” that was required of her to keep her teaching certification current. She had more than enough skills, expertise and knowledge to teach any college class on history or English, let alone teaching introductory composition to freshmen in high school. She oversaw plays, musicals, events and more that would have befuddled half the administrators in her district, so the ability to run a school or a district was in no way beyond her capabilities.

However, that’s not what she loved doing. She loved to teach specific subjects to those students in that district. So she did it.

The pressure to move up and climb ladders is always all around all of us. A “better” job is always one that offers more money, higher levels of responsibility and bigger organizations, it seems. If there’s one thing Mom taught me that I try desperately to teach my students is that they shouldn’t chase other people’s dreams. If they want to be happy, they need to find what makes them happy and do that.

If I had the inclination, I’m sure I could be a chair or a dean or a provost or whatever. (Amy would likely love it, dragging me into Brooks Brothers and telling the guy behind the counter to “Fix this.”) I’ve had the chances to do those things, but I’ve begged out of those opportunities every time.

The same is true about moving to a “better” job or a “name” program. Every so often, a friend will tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, we’ve got an opening and you’d be great here…” I politely thank them, think about it and then stay right where I am, teaching kids the difference between “libel” and “liable.”

Being happy doing something you love is like a double rainbow: A beautiful thing that doesn’t come around all that often. Mom found it and stuck with it. In doing so, she showed me that I could (and should) seek the same kind of thing for myself.

That’s one gift I could never thank her for enough.

Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.

Four common threads associated with journalism malfeasance: A look at Ruth Shalit Barrett’s fraudulent story for The Atlantic

There’s a pretty good reason why people constantly scream that the media is full of “fake news” get traction on their arguments:

Two weeks after publishing a long, juicy and instantly viral story about the world of competitive niche sports, and the wealthy parents who push their children to play them, the Atlantic on late Friday appended a nearly 800-word editor’s note informing readers that it was “deceived” by the story’s author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.

By Sunday evening, the magazine had gone further, announcing that it had retracted the story altogether. “We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author,” an expanded editor’s note said, “and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.”

This wasn’t the author’s first scrape with journalistic malpractice. In the 1990s, she worked at The New Republic where she was fired for plagiarism and taking liberties with her copy. As she noted for this story, written shortly after her dismissal, she was there alongside fellow journalism pariah Stephen Glass, who fabricated multiple stories and faked large portions of others:

“Steve Glass was boring, a boring fabulist, the Milli Vanilli of journalism. There were all these sorts of pieces written about how he was this brilliant, misunderstood genius who was hemmed in by the literature of fact. I think that’s wrong, that the appeal of his pieces was that they were supposedly full of all this great reporting. If you go back and read these pieces knowing that it was all made up, they don’t seem fun anymore,” she says.

“When people started writing pieces about Steve Glass, it all sort of got thinned out….It was ‘Steve Glass, fabulist’ and ‘Ruth Shalit, plagiarist.’ The rest of who I was and what I had done got dumped. And that was a drag, because if you stand back, there are good pieces with solid reporting, and that are true, by the way. To equate that body of work to the work of another writer whose entire oeuvre turned out to be this tissue of lies, that seems to be a large leap,” she says.

Leaping forward to her current situation, The Atlantic went to cringe-inducingly painful lengths to lay out the sins of the author and the magazine’s role in letting it see the light of day. In an editor’s note that retracted the piece, The Atlantic noted the following problems with the story:

  • The main character was given the name of “Sloane,” Barrett said, to protect the anonymity of this stay-at-home mother with three daughters and a son. It turned out to be the source’s middle name, which made it easy for people to identify her. In addition, the woman didn’t actually have a son.
  • In the deeper dig, “Sloane” explained that Barrett suggested the invention of the fictional son, and then told her to lie about his existence when contacted by The Atlantic’s fact checkers. At first, Barrett denied knowing about this before fessing up later.
  • The wounds that “Sloane’s” daughter sustained during a fencing competition were false or extremely exaggerated. In one case, Barrett described a piercing throat wound that struck the jugular vein and nearly hit the carotid artery as “a Fourth of July massacre.” The wound didn’t even draw blood, as noted by witnesses who posted on social media. A second wound was described as a deep thigh gash, which it was not, the correction notes.
  • A family involved in lacrosse was identified as living in the wrong city in Connecticut.
  • A statement that some families had built Olympic-sized ice rinks in their backyards had to be corrected to merely state that private ice rinks were constructed. (Olympic rinks measure 200 feet by 100 feet, which approaches nearly a half acre of space.)

As these falsehoods and errors began to crop up, the folks at The Atlantic acted like trauma surgeons in a disaster: They kept tying off bleeders and trying to keep the patient alive. The editor’s note lists two dates in which the magazine added corrective information to the story, before making the decision to finally pull it. (A PDF of the article is still available on the magazine’s website.)

Simply put, they didn’t know how deep the rot really was, but they knew the author had purposefully lied to them:

Our fact-checking department thoroughly checked this piece, speaking with more than 40 sources and independently corroborating information. But we now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department. We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.

We have talked at length about a number of these situations, such as journalist Mike Ward’s use of fabricated “real people” across multiple stories,

Historically, there is always the “Jimmy” story that Janet Cooke wrote, in which she told the tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict who turned out to be a fabrication. There is Jayson Blair, who fabricated sources, lied about information he supposedly got from sources and plagiarized the work of other journalists. The New York Times ran a correction of around 7,000 words, in an attempt to fix all of the problems Blair caused and restore some of the paper’s credibility.

Heck, Barrett’s former colleague at The New Republic, Stephen Glass, fabricated content to the point he was portrayed by Darth Vader in a movie.

If you’re looking for a lesson here, the “no duh” one would be not to do this kind of stupid crap, as it is likely to lead to your demise as a journalist while cratering the credibility of every media outlet you ever touched.

If you’re looking for a more oblique lesson, it’s that journalists (and journalism educators, for that matter) are trained to be skeptical pit bulls. We dig into stuff and if we find out you lied, we will burn you so badly you will wish you had died as a child. The Barrett piece started to lose air once outside publications, like Erik Wemple’s blog, began picking at it.

Beyond those two things, consider a few basic observations I’ve come up with about the Barrett situation and some of the previous cheating scandals:

It’s rarely a one-time thing: In the movie version of “Shattered Glass,” New Republic editor Chuck Lane is faced with one piece of copy that he knows is false. The whole story of Ian Restil, a teenage computer hacker, is on the radar of Forbes Digital Tool and reporter Adam Pennenberg. Pennenberg has poked enough holes into this thing to make Lane suspicious and his interactions with Glass confirm it.

The scene that sticks out to me is when Lane finally suspends Glass and is walking past the wall of past issues of TNR. He pauses and you can almost hear the gerbil in his brain hopping onto the treadmill.

He pulls down each issue, flips to the Glass piece in it and starts to read. One by one, he hits something that just doesn’t jibe with reality. He suddenly figures out that this guy has been doing this forever. In the end, 27 of the 41 stories Glass wrote were either partially or entirely fabricated, the movie notes in its epilogue.

This tracks with what you see in the Blair story, where he had been making stuff up and stealing from people for years. His college newspaper, The Diamondback, had issues with him and a retrospective on his tenure at the paper noted people at the time were concerned with his content.

In Barrett’s case, the problems existed decades apart, but they fit this mold.

It’s usually for unimportant crap: My buddy Fred Vultee, a long-time copy editor and now professor at Wayne State University, used to say that you can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Atlantic Ocean. His point was that the big stories aren’t the only places where disasters occur, but we can screw up just as badly in some of the tiny bits of copy we write as a matter of course.

I find this analogy is pretty applicable here as well, because in most of the cases involving plagiarism or fabrication didn’t do great and mighty things in a journalism sense. In most cases, these fabrications involved some really stupid and tiny things, especially compared to the risk of damage associated with them.

Mike Ward’s actions fit this to a T. He used official sources and their real quotes for the meat and potatoes of his pieces. However, he made up “regular people” and their thoughts out of whole cloth to provide that “spice” in the story. As I mentioned at the time, I get that it’s not a lot of fun to go find those “salt-of-the-earth, real people” at the Waffle House and ask them what they think of a pandemic or something. However, it’s part of the job and if you can’t do it, the very least you should do is avoid faking it.

Glass did “color” pieces, something that’s pretty clear if you review his list of articles. He said he claimed to be a biting expert after Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield and he got a radio station to put him on a talk show where he took calls for almost an hour. He said he spent time hanging out with drunk and stoned young Republican turks at the CPAC convention, who sought a “real heifer” of a girl to sexually assault. (“Bad acne would be a plus,” his source was quoted as saying.) He claimed to spend time with bond traders who had to pee in specially made urinals to keep them trading instead of heading to the bathroom. On and on these tales went, each more fantastical than the previous one.

None of it was true, but even more, none of it was necessary. It wasn’t like he was Gary Webb, tracking allegations of a CIA-fueled crack epidemic. He wasn’t trying to get information on the Son of Sam by posing as a bereavement counselor and interviewing a victim’s family. If there had been a kid named Ian Restil who hacked a company named Jukt Micronics, would it have been crucial for everyone to know it? Not really.

A rare exception to this was Blair’s work on the D.C. Sniper case, where he wrote various false claims, including an allegation that authorities found a grape stem at the scene of one of the attacks with shooter Lee Boyd Malvo’s DNA on it.

Overall, however cost-benefit analysis these people took seemed to be all out of whack when it came to what they were doing and what would be added to the sum of human knowledge. What it seemed to do, based on what they’ve said over the years, is fed their egos in some prurient way, which they put above their responsibility to their readers.

Fellow journalists generally have a “Spidey sense” about these folks before the situation blows up:  There are moments in which people around the fraudulent journalists get a “feeling” that something isn’t right. In Blair’s case, there were warning signals all over hell and creation. A group of alumni from The Diamondback sent a letter to the J-school at Maryland after things blew up, outlining all the red flags they saw years earlier. Journalist Seth Mnookin’s book, “Hard News,” outlines the various editors at the New York Times who had huge concerns with Blair before he started “breaking” sniper stories.

The New Republic got complaints about Glass and his stories, noting errors or flat-out falsehoods. As he continued to deepen his fraud, he told a “60 Minutes” interviewer that he got fewer complaints because he was telling entirely fictional stories and that fake people don’t phone the boss.

In Barrett’s case, The Atlantic knew full well that she had a shady past, but the folks who hired her for this piece kind of squinted their way past this, noting her indiscretions were decades earlier and that people can change. Instead, they saw her kick up her malfeasance a notch from plagiarism to flat-out fraud.

Listening to that internal voice that says, “Something’s not right here…” isn’t easy for a number of reasons. First, it’s tough for a lot of journalists to imagine that one of our own would do something like this. It’s antithetical to who we are and what our profession espouses, so thinking this could happen is really hard to swallow.

Second, we are used to hearing crap like this from all sorts of people. Sources who said something might end up getting in trouble once the comment is published, so they call up and claim they never said it. When other reporters complain about the “star” reporter, it can come across like sour grapes. Thus, grousing that this guy or that gal is cutting corners or not fact checking or being a dink can be easily dismissed.

Finally, we can talk ourselves out of this “feeling” pretty easily for a number of reasons. In some cases, it’s because everyone is moving at warp speed covering the news, so we just figure it was a glitch or a “one-off” moment. In other cases, we realize that we’re about to accuse someone of something pretty egregious, so we better be damned sure. In most of these cases, these journalists exploited those weaknesses and continue to do their worst.

The dirt never washes off: Not every faker becomes a household name, but those who have done it and gotten caught tend to find their actions essentially ruin their lives. Outside of a couple interviews on a TV talk show and Mike Sager’s piece in CJR, Cooke has been actively out of communication for decades. Pieces often talk ABOUT her, but rarely, if ever, does anyone manage to talk with her. What could have been an incredible journalism career turned to dust.

Glass spent years going through law school, graduating in 2000 from Georgetown, but is unable to practice law, due to his problems as a journalist. He was able to get work with multiple law firms, but he is not an attorney.

Blair’s career was like a bottle rocket, streaking up through the sky quickly and exploding just as suddenly. In speaking with students at Maryland in 2016, he essentially admitted he harmed himself and the profession to the degree he knows he’d never be able to work in the field again.

Barrett got what all three of those folks, and many others, I would imagine, desperately want: A second chance. She took it and blew it. The “how” is easy to understand.

The “why?” Not so much.

 

The Kindergarten Survival Guide

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I did this about 40 years ago. My mother still has it on display in the kitchen. Unfortunately, it’s probably still the best thing I’ve ever drawn, which is why I’m grateful that SAGE employs actual artists for my books.

Today is my birthday and it dawned on me that I’ve now spent more than half my life teaching college students. (Really, I have. The math checks out and everything).

One of the many benefits of spending this much time Peter Pan-ing my way through life is that I get to see a lot of my former students grow into adulthood, family life and parenthood. Seeing the updates of graduations, jobs, weddings and children is one of the best things this job offers as a continually renewing benefit.

Two of my former students, who have been immensely helpful to my book-writing and blog-pimping careers, got married a number of years ago, became parents and raised one heck of an amazing kid. As he completed his pre-school career, his mom asked if anyone on Facebook had any advice for him regarding kindergarten.

In an attempt to be helpful, and maybe amuse his parents, I sent the following “Kindergarten Survival Guide” to this young man and I figured I’d share it here as well. Enjoy:

1) Make sure the teacher knows your name for all the good reasons (good napper, drinks milk well, doesn’t fight) as opposed to all the bad reasons (makes noise, does not work and play well with others)

2) Always be nice to the kid who doesn’t seem to have any friends. If you pick on that kid or be mean to him/her, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

3) Put time and effort into ANY major project that your teacher tells you is “going home for your parents to keep.”

My mother STILL displays the drawing I did for her that was turned into a plastic plate, and had I known that, I would have put more time into coloring it and I wouldn’t have drawn the tree so big.

(It STILL pisses me off that I forgot to color in that guy’s shoe…)

4) There’s nothing wrong with doing your own thing. Just because the bossy girl says, “We are ALL playing kitchen and I’M the chef” doesn’t make it so. Feel free to wander away and read or play with cars or something. You are under no obligation to feed into her delusions of grandeur.

5) Nobody likes a tattletale. Don’t run to the teacher for every minor grievance. Save your tattling for when it counts. Like when a kid accuses you of setting fire to the reading nook or when the milk money goes missing.

6) Kindergarten is not a competition over whose family is more dysfunctional. Feel free not to share everything that goes on at home.

7) You have the coolest mom and dad in the world. You know it, the teacher knows it and your parents know it.

8) Nobody really sleeps during nap time. Except the teacher. Let her snore. She’ll wake up eventually.

9) The kid who says he saw a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day is LYING TO YOU ALL. MAYBE he saw his dad drunk on green beer, but that doesn’t count. Don’t feel bad you didn’t see one. (OK, maybe that’s my own personal scar coming through, but still…)

10) Enjoy every minute of it. You are a great kid and don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.

Gone Fishin’: Safer-At-Home Edition

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Remember to keep a safe distance from other people while engaging in any activity, even virtual fishing. And watch out for that shark.

With the understatement of the year, I’d like to say that this has been a very different semester. (In doing so, my former manager Cliff is probably going to hunt me down, as “very” and “different” were among his least-favorite words to be included in the paper.)

I didn’t take a week off at spring break, as per usual, because there was no real spring break. I tended to write longer things and add more exercises to the blog because it had to happen. The normal things we get to do around this time of year (for me, rummage sales) aren’t around, so it doesn’t feel like we’re at the end or beginning of anything.

If I had a dollar for every time I asked Amy, “OK, what DAY is it?” I’d probably be set for life.

With the semester coming to a close, it’s time to take a short break from the blog before the summer session starts. The blog will go on hiatus until early June, when the summer session starts up for us. If anything “breaking” happens that needs some attention, I’ll post it as needed, so you aren’t entirely rid of me yet.

The Corona Hotline page is still active if you need any exercises and I’m happy to help anyone who needs it. Just hit me up on the contact page.

In the mean time, be safe and be well.

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

Throwback Thursday: You will screw up. You are not on a lunchbox

In honor of this week’s random lottery of meaningless tragedy, I pulled this post from way back to talk about how people manage to screw things up.

Even as other people were reading my post on Emily Reise and laughing at the fact I misspelled her name, they were sharing their own screw ups over their careers. People declared dead when they weren’t, places listed for events that had no such events and even one marijuana raid that happened somewhere else, much to the befuddlement of neighbors in that area.

It’s never great to make a mistake, but it’s going to happen because, as Sam Kinison once noted, you’re not on a lunch box:

Filak-ism: You will screw up. You are not on a lunchbox.

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Who wouldn’t want this face on their third-grade lunchbox?

 

Filak-ism: A random observation, borrowed idea from a movie/song/TV show/book, odd concept or weird phrase that has been warped in the mind of Dr. Vince Filak for broader application within journalism situations.

The late shock-rock comedian Sam Kinison once had the misfortune of ticking off a major comedy figure on a slow news day. Kinison was slated to be the main guest on the “Joan Rivers Show,” but managed to blow it off, leaving Rivers with about 20 minutes of essentially dead air and shadow-puppet tricks. News stations picked this up and it became a pretty big, albeit overblown, deal.

In his posthumously released album, “Live From Hell,” Kinison reflected on the error, leaving me with one of my favorite Filak-isms. “I can (expletive) up. I’m not on a lunch box.” The point being that unlike the kiddie characters and perfect heroes who were marketed on lunchboxes through his youth, Kinison was never going to be perfect.

As a journalist, neither will you.

Trying to be perfect at journalism is your goal, but to quote the famous coach Vince Lombardi, you will never catch perfection. That said, in its pursuit, you will catch excellence and that’s usually good enough. Also during its pursuit, you are going to screw up in some pretty spectacular ways. We already detailed the “filthiest” screw up in all of sports journalism here (as well as one of mine that follows me to this day), but I asked the Hivemind folks for some of the biggest screw-ups they made and if they learned anything from them. Here are some of the things that went wrong:

WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Getting a name wrong can feel like the worst thing in the world, especially after you realize, it’s impossible to make up for it. The most recent error was from an award-winning sports journalist, who managed to confuse an NFL Hall of Fame Green Bay Packer with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer:

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The reason? The writer said he was in the middle of several stories when he caught the Kramer story and had to get it done immediately. When Jerry Kramer started listing off all the people who mattered to him, he mentioned both legendary Packers Jim Ringo and Bart Starr. In his notes, the writer wrote last names, leading to the Ringo Starr moment:

Now, after the initial shock and ensuing, hysterical laugh (trust me, I laughed about 10 minutes, full on tears and everything), a very reasonable question is how does someone write Ringo Starr instead of Jim Ringo? I’m not an idiot. I know who Jim freaking Ringo is. Seems like an impossible error to make, right?

Well, I don’t remember writing “Ringo Starr.” At the point I wrote it, I was typing to fast — between two word docs, remember — to grasp everything I was doing. (This is fairly normal for sports writers; usually we get away with it.) But I do remember Kramer going down the list of teammates he appreciated. “Fuzzy… Forrest… Ringo… Starr…” BAM!

Another longtime journalist had a similar switcharoo moment, confusing the man who played Ben Hur and Moses with one of the “Dirty Dozen:”

I once wrote Charles Bronson when I meant Charlton Heston while making a Soylent Green reference. Forgot to fix it on the page and it made it to print. The complaint letters were well deserved.

We both agreed “The Ten Commandments” would have been different if his mix-up had played out in real life:

It can be even worse if the person is local, in that I doubt Charles Bronson or Charlton Heston even read about the mix up. One writer talked about her experience highlighting the opening of a local business:

One that always sticks with me is when I used the wrong first name of a gentleman who had just opened up a restaurant with his wife. My editor told me that now he couldn’t frame and hang that article highlighting his accomplishment because of my error. He didn’t scream at me because he didn’t have to. I felt terrible when he put my screw-up into those terms.


I DIDN’T MEAN FOR THAT TO GO PUBLIC:

Whenever a student in the newsroom can’t figure out a headline and writes, “SCREW IT, I’LL PICK A HEADLINE LATER” (or in one case, just the F-bomb over and over again) in that space, I get hives. The student always says, “I’m not going to run that,” but that’s not always your choice. In text-based journalism, we always say you should never write something you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read, even if it’s just as a joke. In broadcast, the rule is to treat every microphone like it’s broadcasting or “hot,” something that is easier said than done. A radio journalist who also worked in PR shared this:

Didn’t realize my mic was hot and said “what the fuck?”

A photojournalist noted that the “I didn’t mean for that to go public” situation isn’t only for the word folks, as only a lucky save by the press operators kept this from getting ugly (or uglier):

This was my photo editor’s goof up. He was showing off to a cute intern one day when he Photoshopped an eye on the middle of a guy’s forehead. He apparently thought he had removed it, but the pressmen discovered it several hundred copies into the first run. They had to re-web the press–He was not fired but was skating on thin ice for a while…

DEATH BECOMES YOU (MAYBE):
Life and death issues are no joking matter. Making an error about someone being alive or dead can affect you as a writer for a really, really long time. (Trust me on that one.) One journalism instructor who worked in the field noted that his assumption about a source seemed to create a life-and-death situation:

I gave a guy cancer in a story (he never had cancer-just advocated for patients with it. Learned that just because you THINK you know someone’s story- double check it. And turn down interviews so close to deadline.

A longtime copy editor managed to “resurrect” a source after catching an error from one of the writers on her publication’s staff:

(I) once brought a man back from the dead: The writer was convinced that saying “the late mayor” was the same thing as “the former mayor.” I always tell my interns that fact-checking and careful editing can save lives.

JUST… OW…
Perhaps one of the most gifted and socially aware journalists and professors I have ever known got hit with perhaps one of the most unfortunate typos ever. Of all the people this could have happened to, it was so unfair this one happened to her, given her genuine understanding of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other sensitive issues:

I wrote a story about kids in a summer camp learning about the Buffalo Soldiers (African-American soldiers). Somehow a production error changed the word “counselor” to “coounselor” only in some editions. It was not in the edition I got at home or in the office. Imagine my surprise when a woman called me the next morning and started screaming at me that I was a racist and did I think that was funny? I didn’t know what had happened and had to apologize profusely.

The takeaway here is that nobody in journalism is perfect and we all have our moments of “Oh… God… Why?” When it came to the “Ringo Starr” screw up, the writer told me he laughed hysterically until he cried because there was nothing else he could do. Others said they grimaced and moved on. Some said it informs how they teach or what they do to help students avoid their screw ups.

For me, I go all the way back to the guy who gave my high school graduation’s valedictory address. The guy’s name was Willie Nelson (Really. He went by Willie.) and he told the story about how he once got annoyed by his sister and smacked her in the face with a baseball bat. When he was sent to his room as a punishment, his grandfather came and told him some invaluable advice:

“Boy, I hope you learned something today,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s the stupid ones you gotta learn to avoid making twice.”