Former executive editor of The New York Times Jill Abramson released her book on the state of ethics in contemporary newswriting on Feb. 5. Although Abramson aimed to show how disruptors like BuzzFeed and Vice impact major media mainstays like The New York Times and The Washington Post, she only served to demonstrate elitist elements within the mainstream.
When Abramson’s book proved factually and ethically flawed, media heavyweights declined to treat her the same as a less important figure who had behaved similarly. Instead, Abramson has essentially gotten off scot-free for mistakes that would result in widespread condemnation to any less well-known figure.
Even before the book Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts was published, some of its subjects came forward to report inaccuracies.
Vice News correspondent Arielle Dunhaime-Ross reported that Abramson incorrectly identified them as a transwoman when Dunhaime-Ross said they were gender non-conforming. Dunhaime-Ross also pointed to a handful of errors surrounding basic information they provided to Abramson.
Although the finished version ended up accurately reflecting Dunhaime-Ross’s gender identity, they still said that many of the facts were still wrong—Dunhaime-Ross never heard from Abramson or the publisher to fact-check.
A former Vice News producer Danny Gold reported that the book falsely said Vice correspondents ignored medical protocol when handling the Ebola virus. Gold posted a clip where doctors were filmed telling Vice correspondents that their behavior was proper. Despite Gold’s tweets, the finished book remained unchanged.
The book features further questionable characterizations and factually incorrect information that even a casual reader might
The most damning critique came after the book’s publication when Vice News correspondent Michael Moynihan pointed to plagiarized passages in the book.
“*All three* chapters on Vice were clotted with mistakes,” Moynihan tweeted. “While trying to corroborate certain claims, I noticed that it also contained … plagiarized passages.”
Taking passages almost word for word from publications like The New Yorker and The Columbia Journalism Review is a major ethical misstep. In three out of the 15 chapters, people found more than a dozen example of plagiarized passages, according to The Columbia Journalism Review.
At both The New York Times and Harvard University, where she currently teaches writing, her actions fit the stated definition of plagiarism, according to CNN. Even a couple plagiarized passages or incorrect claims would likely earn a professional journalist a censure from their superiors or a student a failing grade from their professors.
Abramson ostensibly recognized her wrongdoing in a statement on Twitter, saying that she “was up all night going through [her] book because [she] take[s] these claims of plagiarism so seriously.”
Despite the promise to be better, Abramson still denied that she had plagiarized in interviews with Vox, Fox News and CNN, citing a “footnote issue.” Days after recognizing the missteps on Feb. 9, Abramson also dismissed the claims as coming from some cabal of bad faith critics.
“I had been given a heads up that Vice was likely waging an oppo campaign against the book … I understand why they might not be pleased by the portrait of the company in the book,” Abramson said to CNN’s Brian Stelter.
Although some people from Vice pointed to the mistakes originally, others easily verified them. Either way, credible criticism is valid even if the critics didn’t like the work otherwise.
Abramson is undeniably an admirable figure. As she details in her book, her journalism work helped vindicate law professor Anita Hill and took on political miscreants from both political parties. Her work as the first female executive editor in The New York Times’s history upheld the paper’s history of editorial excellence even as it faced potential financial ruin.
Her extended pedigree has granted her plenty of heavyweight defenders. On Twitter, former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller characterized the behavior as “apparent carelessness in attribution [that] might overshadow her achievement.”
Even in the midst of interrogating her, Stelter spoke highly of the book.
“I think it’s a very important book,” Stelter said to Abramson. “We’re going to be [speaking about the book] and I was excited to talk to you about all of the messages in the book about the future of news.”
Stelter’s enthusiasm is understandable, but plagiarism and incorrect information should not be accepted from one of the most experienced journalists in contemporary life. The fact that Abramson can continue to claim a mere “footnote issue” while accepting plaudits and positive reviews speaks to the mainstream media’s continued faith in established figures despite their flaws.