With Ron Paul’s now-infamous newsletters once again making headlines, I mulled whether I ought to revisit the issue, but ultimately decided that there wasn’t much to add to the long piece Dave Weigel and I wrote for Reason back in 2008, especially since I’d already elaborated in a couple blog postscripts written shortly after that article appeared.
Apparently, The New York Times agreed. On Monday, they ran a piece that amounts to a couple paragraphs of “fresh tops” aimed at trying to make the piece current, followed by a very light, very lazy rewrite of our article. It cites exactly the same essays and materials we did, takes for granted the identity of Paul’s chief ghostwriter and newsletter editor (which our article spent a fair amount of space publicly establishing for the first time), and even interviews exactly the same sources on the same subjects. (I’ll buy that any reporter would have phoned Ed Crane up; I’ll eat my left shoe if the authors had the first idea who Carol Moore or Mike Holmes were before they read our piece.)
Please don’t take my word for it, though: Compare for yourself. This isn’t a “follow-up” story. It’s a sloppy paraphrase whose authors expended the bare minimum effort of getting our sources to repeat quotes anew so they could use our material without citing the original source. Or very nearly: A few sentences from the very end, they acknowledge one tidbit was “first reported in Reason,” which is a rather brazen implicit deception, given that the same is true of almost everything else in the article. The sad thing is, if they’d been willing to open with a candid reference and link, they could’ve saved the time spent revisiting ground we covered and actually contributed something to the story.
Unlike Dave Weigel, I’m no longer a journalist, so I actually don’t care about being credited for long-ago reporting on a topic I had no intention of ever returning to. What I do care about is de facto deception of the audience by lazy journalists eager to pass off their regurgitation as reporting—which seems to be rather a habit at the Times. I imagine they get away with it because their scribes are normally lifting from people who aspire to work there one day—but since, again, I’m no longer a journalist, I don’t feel any particular qualms about pointing it out.
I still probably wouldn’t have bothered with a post just to lob a brickbat at some lazy journalism, but in this case it’s actually germane to the substance of the story. The implication, after all, is that even though the newsletters were a focus of national attention four years ago, Paul’s fellow travelers were content to gloss over this ugly history—quietly complicit in this pandering to racism—until the bold bloodhounds at the Times sniffed out the scoop. It looks rather different if the Times is just rehashing the highlights of what a libertarian magazine explored in greater details years ago.
As an ex-journalist myself, I get that it seldom makes sense to waste valuable column inches stroking the ego of every hack whose work you looked at before tackling a topic. The hack’s mom may care, but the average reader certainly doesn’t. When it’s an isolated factoid or a quote, I say lift and godspeed. When you’re doing little more than recapitulating an earlier article wholesale, however, and when it is actually directly relevant to the story that this topic has been exhaustively investigated and discussed within the very movement you’re writing about… well, in those cases, if you don’t have any professional scruples, at least have a little fucking shame.
Addendum: Just to clarify, I’m not annoyed about our reporting being “stolen”—you can’t “steal” public domain facts—or looking to get some kind of acknowledgement by name, which would be of no particular professional value to me at this point (and probably generate unwanted interview requests on a topic I’m happy to be done with). I’m annoyed that what I’d thought was a decent piece of writing and reporting got the equivalent of a rewrite by a stoned highschool student adapting a review essay for an overdue book report. So readers got this mangled account—including an incredibly confused idea of what the faultlines in contemporary libertarianism are about, assuming anyone cares about these internecine pissing contests—rather than a simple link to a more thorough treatment. While I appreciate the supportive comments, nobody should really be offended on my behalf here. Be offended that people who subscribe to the Paper of Record aren’t getting the quality of coverage they’re paying for because a couple of indolent hacks are too desperate to give the appearance of being real reporters to provide a reference and do original work.