Humble thank yous for the ultimate price

A while back a co-worker advised us all to read a series of stories published in the Rocky Mountain News of Denver. She told us of the subject matter and it sounded highly interesting, but at that moment not as critical personally as whatever else I was doing. I saved the e-mail so I could one day return and find the link, but as days wore on her message slipped lower and lower in the field of hundreds of messages I’ve yet to delete.

Today I was reminded of the series through another source while looking for something else. It was a moment in which I had some free time, so I went to see what had caused the recommendation.

The subject matter itself is enough to tip you off that you might get emotional should you choose to spend an hour or so of your life in the middle of it. The series, Final Salute follows the life of a Marine whose duty it is to inform families that their loved one has died defending our country.

The photos, such as the one here by Todd Heisler, tell a story by themselves. But to many they would be similar to those we’ve seen ever since we first entered Afghanistan. The writing by reporter Jim Sheeler provides a new context to the images. We enter the realm of someone whose presence we never want to encounter firsthand, then realize the dreaded shadows on our doorstep are brothers. They’re they for us, no matter how much we might wish they weren’t. 

Today of all days I challenge all of you to take whatever time you have to make this story a part of your Thanksgiving. So much about what our soldiers and sailors are doing has become politicized, with our “leaders” calling each other “liars” and “cowards.” On a day like today it seems important we step out of the politics and recognize those whose very lives make a day like today possible.

Field of Steve

Just a Koppel . . . Thanks

I had planned to write something about Ted Koppel’s retirement from Nightline last night. But he was understated, speaking something true for all of us. So I’ll be brief. The names of anchors come and go and are soon forgotten. I hope the program and format he helped keep alive for more than 25 years will continue. Enough said, other than this — Thank you Ted Koppel.

Field of Steve

Thanks for Leonard

Newspaper profits are great, but newspaper company stock prices are not. A lot of that has to do with the perception, some of it well-founded, that in this business we are not responding well to the realities of the Internet. That there are loads of examples otherwise (including my employer, the Kitsap Sun) seems to miss stock buyers. As a result there have been hordes of people getting laid off recently, most notably 85 at the Los Angeles Times. To read more about it, go read an Associated Press story here.

Leonard Pitts Jr. has a perspective on the matter that I think is well written.

Pitts is one of my favorite columnists. So much so, in fact, that I’ve told people I want to be the Leonard Pitts of the Northwest.

Field of Steve

Thankful for the sweat on my brow

As layoffs continue, happy to be gainfully employed am I. Read these two memos and see why every day I have work is a day I am amazed and grateful. There’s some other context from my personal history that plays a role in that too, but this is all you need to know for now.

Los Angeles Times
Employee Bulletin
November 16, 2005

To:Times Employees

From: Jeff Johnson

As an organization, we have seen much change in the past 10 months, including many new people joining the organization as well as veterans of The Times taking on new responsibilities. We have also accomplished much this past year in a media environment that continues to change at a fast pace creating both new opportunities and challenges.

One of our biggest challenges is to make meaningful investments in our future while making very difficult decisions about the size and shape of our organization. It is more critical than ever that we take decisive action to reflect changes in our business and make tough calls about staffing levels and other critical parts of the newspaper.

Beginning this week and over the next three weeks, departments will be communicating specific initiatives including job reductions to their employees. These are not easy decisions and we are not taking them lightly. However, given the current business climate, we feel these reductions are absolutely essential to succeed in 2006 and beyond.

Now more than ever, we continue to be committed to The Times’ mission of being the definitive voice in Southern California. Our readers and advertisers expect that we cover their world in a way no other media company can both in print and online. Important strategies next year include:

* A renewed focus on deepening the paper’s connection with readers and advertisers in Southern California.

* Investing heavily in our online business to become an indispensable destination in the lives of Southern Californians.

* Growing our developing businesses to reach new audiences and provide new solutions for advertisers.

Specific initiatives underway include stepping up coverage on local and regional news, a relentless drive on building home delivery and single copy sales, as well as continued investment in latimes.com. The recent series by Steve Lopez on the homeless situation along with key coverage by the metro investigative staff demonstrate so well the great work done by The Times in serving Southern California.

Next year will include a series of initiatives including a remake of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, new design features to make the paper more inviting and an aggressive set of changes on the web led by the recent introduction of “The Envelope.” Importantly, the advertising team is focused on several ambitious programs to grow local retail, preprint and classified advertising where we are planning major investments.

As we move forward we will work hard to keep you engaged and informed about important initiatives here at The Times. With your talent and passion for The Times, I am confident that we will be stronger and more valuable to our readers and advertisers than ever before. I deeply appreciate your contributions and continued support.

It’s OK to laugh at this one, which was written by someone I don’t know, posted on the Web site www.poynter.org (a site for journalists) and e-mailed to me. at this one, which was written by someone I don’t know, posted on the Web site www.poynter.org (a site for journalists) and e-mailed to me.

Colleagues:

As you are aware, these are troubling times in our industry and at our newspaper. Energy prices are soaring, health care costs are rising, and yesterday’s announcement that Google has figured out a way to wrap fish over the Internet had made it increasingly difficult for us to maintain our 30 percent profit margin and keep Wall Street happy.

Therefore, it is with great sadness that I, your editor, announce the layoff of 159 people in our newsroom. These people will be offered a generous severance package, featuring a fabulous retirement cake, our hearty thanks for their many years of toil, and 10 percent off their newspaper subscription.

But we must look ahead. The layoffs will leave us with one full-time reporter, Billy Reston, who just graduated from Lincoln High School and says he is healthy enough not to require medical insurance. Billy’s job responsibilities will be split among reporting, editing, photography, and keeping our Web page updated every 30 seconds.

Billy’s younger brother, Bobby, will handle newspaper deliveries on his bicycle. Billy will be responsible for paying him and handling all liability insurance.

This decision will have absolutely no impact on the quality of the newspaper our cherished readers will receive. I have it on good authority, from studying the memos of other editors throughout the country, that it doesn’t matter how many people you lay off or buy out, or how many years of experience they have, quality always remains at the same extraordinarily high, prize-winning level. (FYI: Billy will also devote roughly 75 percent of his weekends to entering contests. Bobby will lick the stamps.)

Our operating committee is holding an emergency retreat this weekend in Paris (great travel deals since the troubles!) to discuss future strategies. Please keep in mind that we will always work in the best interests of our shareholders, advertisers, readers and employees — well, employee.

Regards,

Your Editor

P.S. We could use some volunteers to conduct the United Way campaign.
Billy?

Field of Steve

Thankful that mama didn’t raise no plagiarist

I am, perhaps, breaking copyright rules by posting this. If I am and the Californian asks me to remove it, I will. I just think this is an amazing story. One of the comments in the newsroom was how this reporter did just as much work lying as it would have taken to do the story in the first place.

From the Bakersfield Californian:A Californian reporter’s web of deceit

Internal probe finds plagiarism, other problems in more than 35 stories written by ex-staffer

By GRETCHEN WENNER, Californian staff writer
e-mail: gwenner@bakersfield.com

We believed we needed to investigate the stories written by former reporter Nada Behziz to determine the extent of plagiarism and to uncover and correct any factual errors. Our findings show a widespread pattern, not an isolated incident. And the problems we discovered are significant, not trivial. We promised readers we would publish our findings when our investigation was complete. Here are our findings.
– Mike Jenner, executive editor

Before she was fired Oct. 17 for plagiarism and fabrication, former Bakersfield Californian reporter Nada Behziz signed her name to 96 stories.

A Californian investigation shows more than a third contain a variety of serious problems including plagiarized material, misattributed quotes and information, factual errors or people whose existence could not be verified — including seven physicians and a UCLA professor.

Behziz, 25, the paper’s health writer since February, frequently plagiarized — presenting other reporters’ work as her own. And in some cases, she invented sources and then attributed plagiarized quotes to them.

An e-mail from a reader raised questions about a quotation in an Oct. 16 story about teens and smoking. An inquiry the next day revealed the story contained plagiarized material and individuals whose existence could not be confirmed. Behziz was fired and editors launched an investigation to examine all of Behziz’s stories.

Reporters are expected to do original reporting for their stories, said Executive Editor Mike Jenner. When they cite material published elsewhere, they must attribute it, Jenner said.

“I’m deeply disappointed we didn’t discover this sooner,” Jenner said. “We are taking steps to prevent it in the future.”

A closer look

In one of the worst cases The Californian’s investigation uncovered,it appears Behziz both plagiarized central story elements and fabricated key sources.

The piece centered around a supposed local deaf man’s experience with cochlear implants, computerized devices that help some deaf people hear.

But the July 28 tale of Paul Wilson, whom The Californian has not been able to find, is almost entirely stolen.

Dramatic quotes like these — “When you become a cyborg, you’re no less human than you were before” — are plagiarized almost word-for-word.

So are colorful details: “… he turns his head carefully to avoid tugging the disc from its magnetic grip,” and: “It’s shortly after noon and he’s hungry. And right now, he just wants a chicken salad.”

Nearly 200 of the 850 words in Behziz’s story — including the first sentence — is plagiarized from an article published June 29 in the East Bay Express, a San Francisco-area weekly.

The original article, written by Chris Ulbrich, profiles book author Michael Chorost, a deaf man whose memoir about adjusting to life with a cochlear implant had just been published.

Behziz also took material from another interview of Chorost, then funneled his observations through the mouth of a fictional professor.

Comments published in a July 13 interview with Chorost in U.S. News & World Report were attributed by Behziz to Michael Gispen, identified as a language professor at UCLA.

But UCLA information officers Judy Lin and Meg Sullivan confirmed the university doesn’t employ a Michael Gispen — nor has any UC campus in the past five years. A Google search of the name also turned up no matches. The university has no “language professor” title, the officers added.

Details of problems found

A review of Behziz’s work at The Californian shows she routinely plagiarized others’ words:

* At least 29 stories contain plagiarized material ranging from a sentence or two of unattributed information, to people, “at the scene” details and entire story lines. Some stories plagiarize multiple sources.

* Seven articles quote supposed local doctors who can’t be found on the California Medical Board’s Web site, local phone directories, Kern County public record filings or Internet searches.

* Plagiarized quotes are falsely attributed to others — such as a different expert, a local official, or an apparently fabricated doctor or academic — at least a dozen times.

Work from major newspapers such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times shows up. So do stories from far-flung titles including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Detroit Free Press, along with closer-to-home publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and The Sacramento Bee.

Some plagiarized sources were a day old, others a decade.

The Californian used plagiarism-detecting software from MyDropBox.com, along with reader tips and Internet searches to identify possible problematic passages. Staffers then verified suspected cases with Web searches.

Even Behziz’s first article for The Californian, a routine piece about a job fair that ran Feb. 3, contained six paragraphs of background information plagiarized from a United Press International story. Two national experts from the original source were merged in the plagiarized segment.

Coming to Bakersfield

Behziz arrived at The Californian in early 2005 with seemingly sterling
credentials.

A journalism degree from San Francisco State University was bolstered by prestigious awards, good references, several years worth of real-world experience and an internship at the respected Center for Investigative Reporting in the San Francisco Bay area. Her references gave no indication of any problems.

But Behziz’s past work was not as flawless as it seemed, The Californian has learned.

While Behziz did attend San Francisco State University, from the spring of 2001 through spring 2003, a degree was not awarded, according to Joyce Broughton, a verification specialist with the college.

In recent years, The Californian had used a degree-checking service provided by a contractor to screen job applicants, but that service was suspended at the time of Behziz’s hire. It has since been reinstated.

“Going forward we will be much more stringent in checking the background of applicants,” Jenner said.

Behziz’s resume lists staff positions at two Northern California newspapers that were, in fact, internships — temporary jobs typically held by students.

She claimed she worked as an intern and then staffer at the San Mateo County Times from January 2001 to August 2002. A fax from Dawn Kennedy of the paper’s human resources department states Behziz was an intern at San Mateo from Aug. 26, 2002, to Nov. 21, 2002.

Her resume also claims she worked as a staff writer at The Placer Herald in Rocklin, Calif. Brenda Meadows, the Herald’s former editor, said Behziz was a part-time intern and that Meadows released her after a short time for missing work and for a discrepancy in an article.

The Californian also looked into Behziz’s work for the Daily Republic in Fairfield, where she worked from March 2003 to April 2004. A review of about a dozen Behziz stories from the Daily Republic’s archives turned up two significant examples of plagiarism.

When told of the discoveries Friday, Bill James, the Daily Republic’s editor and publisher, said, “We’re dismayed and concerned.” The paper is still working on its own investigation of Behziz’s work there, he said.

Alerted by a reader

Behziz was fired the day after a reader alerted Californian editors last month to a plagiarized quote in a front-page Sunday article. The quote — “I need this for my man. A man needs cigarettes” — was taken from a study of smokers’ children and had been widely circulated in national news accounts.

Editors discovered the piece contained additional problems, including quotes from a supposed local surgeon whose existence can’t be verified as well as passages about a pair of supposedly local 16-year-old smokers that had been plagiarized from a 1995 article in the San Francisco Examiner.

When asked if she wished to comment on this story, Behziz e-mailed a response. “This is my only comment: This is a witch hunt. Too bad your news organization is not this vigilant in pursuing true wrongdoers.”

Through a lawyer, Behziz has demanded a retraction from The Californian for two previous stories published about plagiarized pieces she turned in. Such formal demands are legally required before someone can file a libel or defamation suit.

The Californian has not responded to the retraction demand.

Field of Steve

Uncle thanks

Did you ever bite into cereal and somewhere between the first and second bite realize there’s something really bitter in it and then you look in the bowl and there are ants floating in your milk? I have, but not for a long time. I’m grateful for that.

Field of Steve