By: Nat Hentoff
Nat Hentoff Examines ‘Journalistic Misconduct’
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by Nat Hentoff
The internal gag order on Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has
been the most widely reported journalism story across the country,
including the pages of E&P, since columnists Mike Barnicle and
Patricia Smith were forced to leave the same paper for alchemizing
fiction into fact.
But in suspending Jacoby for four months without pay – and indicating
to him that he’d be wise to look elsewhere – the Globe accused the
columnist neither of plagiarism nor of making up stories. The charge
is ‘serious journalistic misconduct.’
Worth examining is the ‘journalistic misconduct’ of Globe Publisher
Richard Gilman, Editorial Page Editor Renee Loth, and Ombudsman Jack
Jacoby’s offense was embodied in a column on the harsh fates that
befell a number of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
It ran July 3. Similar essays have been circulating in print and on
the Internet for a long time. Some bear the bylines of Paul Harvey
or Rush Limbaugh. Others are anonymous. Jacoby did his own research
and repaired the inaccuracies.
As soon as Jacoby knew that management was exercised that he had not
acknowledged the previously published historical roundups, he eagerly
offered to put, as he told me, ‘a shirttail’ on his next column making
such an acknowledgment. That correction was turned down.
Editorial Page Editor Loth told Dan Kennedy, the alternative Boston
Phoenix’s exemplary press critic: ‘This is the first and only time
we’ve looked at Jacoby in terms of disciplinary action.’ Nonetheless,
Jacoby was taken off his page and his reputation seriously damaged.
At worst, his offense – in the words of David Reinhard, associate
editor of The Oregonian in Portland – was ‘an error in judgment.’
Recently, when a San Antonio Express-News staffer committed actual
plagiarism, his punishment was a reprimand, accompanied by an apology
Jacoby was the only conservative columnist on the Globe’s Op-Ed pages.
Steve Bailey, another Globe columnist, told Howard Kurtz, media writer
for The Washington Post: ‘The guy’s opinions were never welcomed in
this building. … One mistake, and he’s gone. It’s hard to imagine
there wasn’t some connection with his conservative views.’
Or, as The Oregonian’s Reinhard said, referring to the Globe,
‘Ideological diversity … is not what they talk about at those media
Loth denies that Jacoby’s politics had anything to do with his sentence,
handed down by the Globe’s equivalent of England’s 17th-century Star
Chamber. There, defendants were disposed of – sometimes with the loss
of their heads – without a jury and without a trace of due process.
Loth has not explained why the suspension is for four months – thereby
shielding the Globe’s readers from Jacoby’s views about the presidential campaigns.
Furthermore, Jacoby said Loth told him that if he returns, he will ‘have
to change the focus of his column.’ Like maybe describing the changing
seasons on Boston Common? On this point, Kennedy added, ‘Two
acquaintances of Loth told the Phoenix, on condition of anonymity, that
Loth has made no secret of her distaste for Jacoby’s work.’ Moreover, a
longtime friend of hers, and mine, told me that she is considerably to
the left of Jacoby.
Then there is the Globe’s judicious ombudsman, Jack Thomas. At every
paper where I’ve worked, I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to get an ombudsman appointed. But to be a representative of all the readers, an ombudsman
has to rein in his or her own ideological views.
Thomas had attacked an earlier Jacoby column supporting the free-speech
rights of Christian students at Harvard University who believe that gays
can be ‘cured.’ Thomas wrote that Jacoby’s column was ‘a high price to
pay for freedom of the press.’
As for Jacoby’s suspension, Thomas proclaimed July 17 that the punishment
was not excessive, and sardonically referred to ‘the single voice of uncompromising support’ for Jacoby among conservatives. This vast
right-wing conspiracy appears to include the Post’s Kurtz, the Phoenix’s
Kennedy, TV newsman Bernard Kalb, attorney and syndicated columnist
Harvey Silverglate, nonconservative staff members at the Globe, and me,
among many other free-press zealots.
A petition by diverse Globe staffers protesting the harshness of the
penalty was summarily dismissed by Publisher Gilman.
On July 7, there appeared on the Internet a breaking-news story by Myron
Pauli: ‘Boston Globe Suspends Thomas Jefferson.’ According to the report,
the four-month suspension of ‘noted anti-tax, anti-gun-control columnist
Thomas Jefferson … for ‘serious journalistic misconduct” was meted out
in response to his controversial July column, ‘Declaration of
Independence.’ The Globe’s editorial page editor was cited as pointing
out that ‘similar ideas had been expressed by numerous natural-law
philosophers, such as John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.’
And, it was added, ‘the phrase – ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness’ – is taken, almost verbatim, from a previous work of John
Nat Hentoff is a writer for The Village Voice. His ‘Getting It Right’ column appears monthly in E&P.
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