Anonymous Sources, Part III – In Someone Else’s Words

This is Part III of a three part series.  Part I appeared last Wednesday, and Part II was published last Friday.   

———-

Here’s the story, so far. 

In Part I, we noted that Jeff Fecke, when pressed about the attribution of a quote from MNGOP chair Ron Carey, in a story in this article about the various parties’ responses to the idea of changing the date of the Minnesota Primary, begged off.  We noted that he changed his story – changing the attribution of a quote by chairman Carey only when pressed in the comment section by Michael Brodkorb, my Northern Alliance colleague and publisher of Minnesota Demcrats Exposed, and one of Minnesota’s more notorious gadflies. 

I noted that among bloggers who aspire to credibility, it is at the very least poor form to change key mistakes – like attributions of quotes – without informing the readers. 

In Part II, I showed the reader that while Fecke, in his original piece, wrote the quotation from Ron Carey in such a manner as to indicate that he’d gotten the quote directly from the GOP chairman, that Michael Brodkorb noted in the original post’s comment section – and I independently confirmed with the MNGOP’s Mark Drake, who handles all press relations for Carey – that Fecke was never present at the interview from which this story was generated. 

I also showed a similar quote, from a May 17 piece in which Coleman threw Alberto Gonzalez under the bus, in which Fecke presented a quote from Coleman with no other attribution, in a tone that suggested Fecke had had access to the Senator.  I showed, via a source familiar with the story, that the quote took place in a phone interview at which Fecke (and the rest of the Minnesota Monitor’s staff) was not present. 

So what we have so far is a bit of bad blogging etiquette – failing to inform users that one has made corrections germane to the central facts of a story – and a slightly more serious offense, sloppy attribution.  To translate – since Fecke wasn’t present at either interview, then neither Carey nor Senator Coleman “said” anything to Fecke.  The quotes had to have come from another source.

Fecke, of course, has been called on this: as we noted, Brodkorb asked:

You have a direct quote from the Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Ron Carey in your post:

“…GOP chair Ron Carey saying there is a ’90 percent probability’ of a change…”

Did you interview Chairman Carey?  Did he give you the “90 percent probability” quote?

Fecke responded:

 Maybe I did interview Ron Carey…and maybe I got the information from wire sources…and maybe there’s another option you haven’t thought of. 

Since this is a rather important issue, I asked Fecke myself, in two separate emails last Wednesday and Friday, where those two quotes came from.  Excerpted from Friday’s email (the question differed from Wednesday’s only in the occasional conjunction):

1) To what source to you attribute the Ron Carey “90%
probability” quote?  Was it from an interview, a
statement from the Carey office, or some other source
(and if so, where?)
2) To what source to you attribute the Mark Ritchie
quote in the same piece?  Again – direct interview,
statement, or a different source?
3) On May 17, 2007, you published a piece
(http://www.minnesotamonitor.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=1800)
on
Senator Coleman‘s statement on Attorney General
Gonzalez.  The quote read “”’I don’t have confidence
in Gonzales,’ Coleman said, adding, ‘I would hope that
the attorney general understands that the department
is suffering right now, and he does the right thing,
and that is allows the president to provide new
leadership.’” To what source do you attribute this
quote – an interview, a statement, or another source?
 

Questioned about this via email, Fecke had no comment.

So the question remains; from where did the quotes come?

———-

Remember; in his original story, Fecke wrote:

While the state has not officially moved the caucus date, both DFL and Minnesota GOP leaders have indicated support for the switch, with GOP chair Ron Carey reportedly saying there is a “90 percent probability” of a change, and the DFL already giving preliminary approval to the plan.

When I talked with Carey’s press handler Mark Drake, I asked him – since Fecke wasn’t present when Carey said the above, how could he have gotten the quote?

Drake replied that the only place he’d seen it in print was an AP story on the subject.

The West Central Tribune covered the story, listing its source as the Associated Press. 

Here’s a paragraph about Chairman Carey, commenting on the primary date:

I like to think Minnesotans have good common sense, so it will be a shame to not have Minnesota’s voice heard as we choose the nominees for both major parties,” said state Republican Party chairman Ron Carey.

Carey said there’s a “90 percent probability” the caucus date will be accelerated. His party’s executive committee intends to decide on the issue next month.

This same report – and quote – is repeated in several other news outlets:

So we’ve seen several instances of the “90 percent probability” quote that Fecke used in a manner to indicate that he’d heard the quote – indeed, that he equivocated about in his comment, saying “Maybe I did interview Ron Carey…and maybe I got the information from wire sources” in his comment-section response to Michael Brodkorb’s direct question.

Maybe this, maybe that.  But where did the quote come from?

The only source I can find for this quote – the only source that any news outlet seems to have provided, indeed, for this quote, and the only place other than the Minnesota Monitor where Ron Carey’s press handler Mark Drake has seen the quote other than Jeff Fecke’s story – is in a report from the Associated Press, furnished to its subscribers.

———-

You can find a website for everything, these days.

I took a trip out to Plagiarism.com, your one-stop source for everything related to…well, we need go no further, need we?

Plagiarism:  1. to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of nother) as one’s own
2. to use (another’s production) without crediting the source
3. to commit literary theft
4. to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

The only source anyone can find for the Carey quote is the AP story on the subject. 

The AP is fairly stringent about requiring subscribers to attribute or credit the service for the material it supplies.  In none of Fecke’s stories is any wire service credited.

Which is irrelevant, since, when questioned by email, Monitor editor Robin Marty confirmed that the Monitor is not a subscriber to the Associated Press wire service. 

———-

“So what, Berg?  It’s three lousy words!  Anyone can make a mistake!”

Indeed, anyone can.  Bobbling ones’ attribution is, indeed, a rookie flub in journalism, albeit a rookie flub that can get a new reporter unceremoniously fired.  And tacking a “reportedly” on after the fact (as Fecke admitted doing) when credit to the AP (and, on a blog or online news site, a link to the source) is called for, doesn’t really fix the problem; the Associated Press is, indeed, fairly clear about requiring attribution at the very least. 

But if it’s an isolated incident, what’s the problem?

True.  If it’s an isolated incident.

———-

Let’s go back to the May 17 piece in the Monitor, in which Fecke quoted Senator Coleman.  I’ve bolded a brief passage; it will be important later in the piece:

“I don’t have confidence in Gonzales,” Coleman said, adding, “I would hope that the attorney general understands that the department is suffering right now, and he does the right thing, and that is allows the president to provide new leadership.”

Where did the comment come from?

Here was Senator Coleman’s office’s printed statement, taken from the Senator’s website:

May 17th, 2007 – Washington, D.C. – The cloud of suspicion continues to hover over the Attorney General’s office surrounding the dismissal of U.S. Attorneys. This political debate distracts from the important work that must be done at the Justice Department. I believe Attorney General Gonzales is unable to provide the type of leadership needed to effectively run the Department The Department needs new leadership. Sadly, the reputation of Minnesota’s former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger has been dragged into this situation. Tom is a first-class prosecutor and Minnesota is grateful for his service. I consider him to be a good friend and an outstanding public servant. I have spoken to Tom many times, and he has assured me that he left of his own accord. Nevertheless, it is disturbing that he was ever targeted for possible dismissal.

So Fecke’s quote never occurs in Coleman’s printed public statement.  Where did it come from?

WCCO-TV covered the story; I’ve bolded a passage, again for emphasis:

“’I don’t have confidence in Gonzales,’ Coleman told reporters on a conference call. ‘I would hope that the attorney general understands that the department is suffering right now, and he does the right thing, and that is allows the president to provide new leadership.’”

The story is credited to the Associated Press.  Note that the quote – attributed to a conference call with the Senator – is identical to the quote in Fecke’s piece – except that Fecke’s piece excises (noted the bolded text in the quotes) any reference to the phone conference at which the quote was originally uttered. 

The Strib carried the story:  Brady Averill, attributing the report to a conference call (and crediting wire services in the story’s footnote) wrote:

“I don’t have confidence in Gonzales,” Coleman said in a conference call. “I would hope that the attorney general understands that the department is suffering right now, and he does the right thing, and that is allows the president to provide new leadership.”

The LATimes covered the story, with the same quote and attribution.

The quote took place in a conference call.  Sources familiar with the conference call confirm  that Fecke wasn’t present at the conference call.  The only difference between Fecke’s story and the AP-sourced copy? 

Fecke removed “Coleman told reporters on a conference call”, and replaced it with “Coleman said, adding”. 

How is one to interpret this, other than to make it appear Fecke is trying to make it look like he was present for the statement?

I’m open to explanations.

———-

On May 31, Fecke wrote a piece about Governor Pawlenty’s veto of a tax bill.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a tax bill Wednesday night over language that would have required the state to take inflation into account when preparing a budget, as it had before 2002.

When legislators and the Governor assemble the state budget, we shouldn’t assume that every program should grow on autopilot. We need to examine every taxpayer dollar that will be spent and ensure that we are streamlining and keeping government efficient and effective,” said Pawlenty.

Note the attribution: “…said Pawlenty”.  There is no link to any other source, implying that Pawlenty “said” this to Fecke, or to an audience of which Fecke was a member. 

From the Governor’s website, in a release dated the day before Fecke’s piece:

In his veto letter regarding the tax bill, Governor Pawlenty said there were many positive items in the bill, but that legislative leaders were aware of his opposition to including a measure that would automatically incorporate inflation into the budget forecasting process.“When legislators and the Governor assemble the state budget, we shouldn’t assume that every program should grow on autopilot. We need to examine every taxpayer dollar that will be spent and ensure that we are streamlining and keeping government efficient and effective,” Governor Pawlenty said. “When complaints come about provisions lost as a result of this veto, I would encourage people to contact DFL leaders who chose to keep controversial policy language in rather than passing a clean bill.”  

The quote – presented in bold in both instances – features identical wording and punctuation.  Several organizations released this story, verbatimnoting prominently that it was a news release from the governor’s office.  Larry Schumacher of the St. Cloud Times filed a piece that carried the quote verbatimin a story that credits the Associated Press. Fecke’s piece included no such attribution

———-

In November, 2006, Eric Black – then with the Strib, now ironically with the Minnesota Monitor – wrote in Strib’s “The Big Question” blog (calling the piece an “Online version of a story that appeared in shorter form in the Nov. 2, 2006 Star Tribune”) quoting then-candidate, now Congresswoman Michele Bachmann:

On global warming, Bachmann recalled that she recalls scientists warning in the 1970s of global cooling. Now they warn of global warming. “I don’t think that it has been established yet as a fact that global warming is the issue of the day.”

The November 2 Strib piece – written by Eric Black – said:

 Global warming: Bachmann said in an October debate that she recalls scientists warning in the 1970s of global cooling. “I don’t think that  it
has been established yet as a fact that global warming is the issue of
the day.”

A long list of leftyblogs quote this piece with deeply-spotty attribution – including one from Fecke this past Friday, nearly eight months after the original piece was published:

Bachmann has previously said, “I don’t think that it has been established yet as a fact that global warming is the issue of the day, and one thing we need to do is look at the science.” 

The November 2 Strib piece (no longer available online) said that Bachmann’s quote came from a Sixth Congressional District candidate debate in October. 

Why didn’t Fecke link to the Strib piece, or any prior mention of the source of the quote? 

(Why, indeed, did every leftyblog I looked at that carried the quote fail to attribute it?)

———-

Four years ago, Daniel Forbes in Wired wrote about the first great blogging plagiarism scandal, involving warblogger “The Agonist”:

[Agonist blogger Sean] Kelley’s insightful window on the details of the war brought him increasing readership (118,000 page views on a recent day) and acclaim, including interviews in the The New York Times and on NBC’s Nightly News, Newsweek online and National Public Radio.

The only problem: Much of his material was plagiarized — lifted word-for-word from a paid news service put out by Austin, Texas, commercial intelligence company Stratfor…Aside from a few scattered attributions, Kelley presented Stratfor’s intelligence as information he had uncovered himself, typically paragraph-long reports detailing combat operations in Iraq. He took these wholesale from a Stratfor proprietary newsletter, U.S.-Iraqwar.com, which Kelley admits he subscribes to.

“Many postings on the (Agonist) pages I looked at are word-for-word verbatim,” said Stratfor chief analyst Matthew Baker.

Kelley plagiarized material, as the WaPo’s Cynthia Webb noted, “apparently to jazz up his own war posting and to curry favor with potential intelligence sources”.

So what’s the story?

Look at the evidence – especially the fact that the biggest change Fecke made to any of the quotes was to Coleman’s – a change that, arguably, specifically removed attribution, and made the quote look like a statement to Fecke.

One way to interpret it:  Laziness mixed with deadlines equals sloppy journalistic craftsmanship.  

Another interpretation:  Fecke wanted to give the impression of having access to the political figures quoted in the stories. 

———-

To recap:  The Minnesota Monitor at the least seems to have practiced highly slipshod attribution – one of the key stocks in the journalist’s trade – in quoting State GOP chair Ron Carey, Senator Norm Coleman, Governor Pawlenty and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.   At the most, given that the quotes seem to appear to be identical, word-for-word verbatim, with quotations from stories in the Associated Press and from Governor’s office press releases, a standard definition of “plagiarism” might seem to apply. 

It’s a serious charge. 

As such, I have sought comment from Jeff Fecke three times: this past Wednesday (6/27), Friday (6/29) and Sunday afternoon (7/1).   Editor Robin Marty was copied on the last two emails. 

On Sunday night, Fecke responded.  He said that he has addressed my questions with his editor, and that he has no comment. 

UPDATE:  I changed “not especially-rigorous definition…” to “standard definiition…” of plagiarism.  The rhetorical flouish seemed clear when I wrote it, but didn’t turn out that way. 

UPDATE II:  King Banaian adds:

I could say was that if a student here did what Mr. Fecke at MinMon did on a paper turned in to me, I would call it plagiarism. Use of the adverb “reportedly” would not suffice — I would have written in red in the margin, “reported where? Give source.”

Now certainly a newspaper article is not an academic work. And certainly as well, a newspaper gets press releases that can be used as quotes without attribution (it’s considered something in lieu of an interview.) But by its own standards, MinMon says its ‘new journalist fellows’ should “[i]dentify sources when possible.” I think it is fair to hold a website that puts such statements on its pages up to those standards.

And…: 

This is what strikes me as the takeaway from this story: In Mr. Fecke we have a young man, reared on the blogosphere, who has been encouraged by an agenda-driven news site to wear the mantle of “journalist”. He identifies himself as a freelance writer, and he writes like, well, a freelance writer. In trying to effect the voice of a journalist he has failed to grasp the seriousness of the enterprise. This does not make him a journalist, and to do so would require more care over his articles than the editors of MinMon have provided, at least in this case. Perhaps new fellow Eric Black can provide the seasoned wisdom that the current leadership has failed to provide to its new journalist fellows.

More as they pop up.

32 thoughts on “Anonymous Sources, Part III – In Someone Else’s Words

  1. I didn’t read the whole post because it’s long and I don’t care that much, but from what I did read, this seems like a minor infraction. He probably should commented where he got the quotes, but on a list of horrible things in the blogosphere, taking accurate quotes from politicians from the MSM isn’t something I care too much about.

    Partisan hacks on the other hand…

  2. If you care about partisan hacks then perhaps you should care about partisan hacks who steal quotes in order to convey credibility upon themselves.

  3. Let’s be clear. Minnesota Monitor analyzes media outlets looking for, and then publicizing, any writing or speaking error than can possibly be construed as having a conservative bias.
    This entry,
    http://www.minnesotamonitor.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=1959, by Paul Schmelzer, Describes how Schmelzer got the strib to change a headline’s reference from “Illegals” to “Undocumented Workers”.

  4. I care more about trying to smear someone’s credibility with a non-issue.

    Before you blow up about how this isn’t a non-issue, I would like to say that, as I see it, the worst case scenario is this: a partisan blogger used accurate quotes from politicians without attributing them to the AP. I completely agree that this not ideal. However, I presume that the reason this is brought up is to call in to question Jeff’s credibility as a larger issue, which not citing the AP for accurate quotes does not do. I haven’t read much of what Jeff writes, but I’m not going to think he’s unworthy of reading just because he doesn’t cite that he got accurate quotes from the AP. You see what I’m saying? This attack in no way hurts his credibility, only makes me think he should have taken closer notes in journalism class. This attack doesn’t hurt his message, only how he delivers his message.

    This is why it’s a non-issue. It’s nitpicking on one front in effort smear someone’s entire work. This is why I take more offense to the attack than the issue of not properly citing AP.

    As I see it, the way to get me not to read him is to attack his partisanship, but being as this blog is also quite partisan (as are most blogs out there), that attack is not available.

  5. “only makes me think he should have taken closer notes in journalism class”

    Fecke never took a journalism class in his entire life! He went from a below-average blogger to a “citizen journalist fellow” simply because Minnesota Monitor decreed it so. You don’t think that calls into question his credibility? Dude, I have a couple bridges I’d like to sell you.

    And, it’s just great that you’re fine with plagiarism. It’s nice to know you’re such a discerning consumer of media droppings.

  6. Johnny, if it had been merely a matter of sloppy attribution, I’d have never written the story. Sloppy attribution on blogs? Sacre bleu!

    But as Ryan notes, this crosses the line into plagiarism, I think. Note, especially, the change Fecke made to Coleman’s quote; he removed the accurate reference (that the quote occurred in a phone press conferrence) to change it to (in effect) “Coleman said”. I suggest to you that the change was made not to use ” accurate quotes from politicians without attributing them to the AP”, but to create the appearance of authority and access.

    And it’s there that things arguably fly past “honest mistake” into “appearance of dishonesty”.

    That, and I think the AP has a less-sanguine view about this sort of thing.

  7. I think Johnny misses the larger picture. Jeff and the Minimoni seem to be applying the type of “objective” journalism we’ve come to expect from the MSM. One of the reasons Conservatives don’t like those folks is because they pretend to be objective while promoting an agenda. “Fake but accurate” won’t fly any longer.

  8. What Come-Lately seems to miss is that whether committed by omission or commission the fundamental fact is that Mr Fecke is a Dishonest Actor. What he does is Dishonest and it lends color to the character of his missives when a reader knows this.
    Dishonest journalism stopped working for Dan Rather and it looks like the same is happening to Mr Fecke.

  9. Johnny, you don’t care enough to read this whole post (or the two before it), but you will comment twice? That strikes me as the wrong kind of lazy combined with the wrong kind of diligence. 🙁

  10. Troy, man, cut me some slack, it’s a long dull post and I have ADD.

    Either way, my point is that perhaps we are all overreacting a tad? Maybe not citing AP doesn’t make him the worst blogger in the history of the world? I’m just saying that we should step back and think if not attributing accurate quotes from politicians to the AP really destroys all of his credibility.

    My point is that this doesn’t affect the validity of his arguments. If I heard something that would affect this, I would agree that all of this attention is merited. But even if, at worst, he is pretending to have a lot more access and authority than he has, this still doesn’t affect me listening to his arguments. But a minor infraction of plagarism (yes, it is minor), does not make the man a demon.

  11. Johnny, continue to be smart and keep your sense of balance. In the old days the inmates had to take over an asylum, now they spend their life compiling brain-deadening posts like this one, and then arguing like it was actually important and worth it. Don’t you remenber those kids in the dorm that you couldn’t seem to get away from? (You don’t have to do this to yourself no matter what they say, and the only reason Troy read the post was to criticize you).

  12. I actually posted to criticize the behavior, not the person. I think “reading less, posting more” is too common a problem. *shrug*

    I think his problem is not that he’s a “naughty blogger”. His organization says he’s more than that:

    http://www.minnesotamonitor.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=21

    so I don’t know if it is all that out of line to call him on it. Not a demon, true, but not a journalist either it seems. *shrug*

    I also think coldeye has acquired no insight into what motivates me, so his assumptions on that subject may be suspect. *rolls his eyes*

  13. Terry says “Minnesota Monitor analyzes media outlets looking for, and then publicizing, any writing or speaking error than can possibly be construed as having a conservative bias.” Then he writes that I “got the strib to change a headline’s reference from ‘Illegals’ to ‘Undocumented Workers.'” Not true. I didn’t ask for the headline to be changed and I’m not aware it did change. I’m curious, though; are you saying that use of the term “illegals” reflects “conservative bias”? I’m not aware that the use of that specific term is integral to the movement.

    Yes, my personal preference is to use more descriptive and less politically loaded language (which is why I don’t use “illegals”) but I think I covered it in a pretty straight-ahead way:

    >>>> The semantics of border crossing: Despite years of debate about the use of the term “illegals” to describe people the National Association of Hispanic Journalists prefers to call “undocumented immigrants,” the Star Tribune ran a story on Wednesday using the term. The Associated Press story, “Green Bay, Wis., passes ordinance against hiring illegals,” shouldn’t have been headlined that way, acknowledged Star Tribune web editor Terry Sauer. “It’s a Wisconsin AP headline that we should have changed,” he said. The paper’s preferred usage, he added, is “illegal immigrant.” Many news organizations have banned the noun form of the word — agreeing with immigrants’ rights advocates who believe illegal border-crossers should not be identified in their entirety by an unlawful act. For more, listen to National Public Radio’s excellent piece on the semantics of immigration.

  14. The paper’s preferred usage, he added, is “illegal immigrant.” Many news organizations have banned the noun form of the word — agreeing with immigrants’ rights advocates who believe illegal border-crossers should not be identified in their entirety by an unlawful act.

    While I agree that “illegal” should only be used in its adjective form, I find “undocumented worker” to be euphemistically unclear to the point of dishonesty. “Undocumented” can imply an accidental (“oops, lost my dox!”), negligent (“who cares about documentation?”) or any number of benign causes – but while this nation has absolutely no policy problems in dealing with absent-minded immigrants, we have rather a big one with ones that sneak across the border, thereby breaking the law.

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