Boston Columnist Suspended for 'Journalistic Misconduct'

July 7, 2008 - 8:26 PM

Add: Includes comments from Rush Limbaugh's staff

(CNSNews.com) - A Boston Globe columnist is calling his life a "nightmare" after he was suspended for four months without pay Friday for what newspaper executives deemed a breach of journalistic integrity.

"I joined The Globe as an op-ed columnist in February 1994," Jeff Jacoby wrote in a statement released Monday. "What is happening now is a nightmare. In accusing me of serious journalistic misconduct, The Globe is poisoning the good name I have spent years building up. I am deeply concerned about my family's future ... and I am deeply concerned about my reputation."

Jacoby wrote a column about the signers of the Declaration of Independence and what happened to them in the aftermath of that 1776 event, entitled "56 Great Risk-Takers."

Some of the information used in his column was derived, according to Jacoby's written statement released Monday, from "a version (of the signers' story) written by Paul Harvey, another published by Rush Limbaugh, and a third sent to me a year ago by a reader."

"Using those versions - which all told much the same story, in much the same words - as a starting point, I did my best to verify the information," Jacoby continued, citing several history books and biographical Internet sites as his sources of confirmation for the facts ultimately outlined in his column.

The original piece on the signers of the Declaration of Independence was written by Rush Limbaugh, Jr., father of the famous broadcaster, and was entitled "Our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor." The piece was written as a speech that the elder Limbaugh delivered on request to groups in Missouri "long before Rush was the broadcaster he is today," according to Kit Carson, chief of staff for the Rush Limbaugh radio show. Carson said he did not know exactly when the speech was first researched and written.

Limbaugh was not available for comment, but Carson said Limbaugh was "not mad" about the apparent use of some of the material in the Limbaugh speech by Jacoby. "If the guy just lifted a paragraph, we'd be shocked, but he didn't," said Carson. "He's an honest guy."

According to Carson, the broadcaster learned that his father's speech was in circulation on the Internet and elsewhere when Limbaugh's wife noticed excerpts from the speech used verbatim in a recent article by advice columnist Ann Landers. Carson said Limbaugh was not particularly upset by Landers' use of the material, "but he wishes she would have given credit to his father." A decision was then made to re-publish the speech on Limbaugh's Internet web site with attribution to the talk show host's father.

Carson also raised the issue of what level of attribution is necessary for historical research in published commentary. "This is all historical stuff," said Carson. "My impression is that it's all public record."

Other news organizations had published similar stories in honor of Independence Day; much of the information found in those various articles was akin to what was presented in an anonymous email circulated during the same time frame.

"I knew, too, that an anonymous email on the signers of the Declaration had been making the rounds," Jacoby stated. "It, too, told approximately the same story, using approximately the same language, as all the other versions."

CNSNews.com posted its own story on the issue July 4, using the anonymous email as a starting point for further investigation and interviews.

"Like many users of the information, CNSNews.com used the document as a basis for research," Executive Editor Scott Hogenson stated.

The Internet news wire's investigations for its story, he continued, included interviews with academicians who specialize in colonial American history and research of the web site Colonialhall.com, which cites as its sources the 1829 publication, "Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence," by the Rev. Charles A. Goodrich.

According to Hogenson, CNSNews.com research also included perusal of "The United States Manual of Biography and History," written by James V. Marshall and published by James B. Smith and Co. in Philadelphia in 1856.

"Even though the information we used was independently verified, that verification should have been attributed in our reportage," Hogenson said. "I'd suspend a reporter in a heartbeat for not doing their homework, but a suspension for failing to attribute their research in copy seems a little Draconian."

Globe officials did suspend Jacoby for just that - failing to attribute research sources - and labeled his actions as unbecoming of a journalist.

"Such an account (of Jacoby's column) has appeared in other publications and books and on websites for years, and Jacoby failed in his column to attribute any sources or alert readers that the account and portions of the content used previously appeared in other sources," a Globe statement read. "Jacoby has received appropriate disciplinary action for serious journalistic misconduct."

Though not accused of plagiarism, one University of Maryland College of Journalism professor said the lines defining such action have become grayer, and Jacoby's failure to attribute the historical information could still be construed as a serious ethical violation of journalistic standards.

"(The rules) have gotten stricter because there have been so many high-profile cases in the last few years," said Carl Sessions Stepp, associate professor for journalism and also the senior editor of the American Journalism Review. "I don't think you can say you checked two sources, three sources ... and that is a blanket measure (of when attribution is unnecessary). I think it depends on the nature of the material."

A meteorologist reporting, "It rained yesterday," he continued, is one example of a statement needing no attribution. The more "colorful" the information becomes, however - as in cases where the compilation of facts, research, and related materials seems based in "creativity" or individualism - the more necessary the attribution is," Stepp said.

As a general rule, Stepp said he advises students to "over-attribute" rather than "under- attribute."