The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

Phil Bronstein has a silly post on his SFGate.com blog in which he points out that the New York Times article on Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts uses the same anecdote in the lede that a San Francisco Chronicle article used two months ago, about Batts initially declining to apply for the Oakland job, then changing his mind after the four Oakland police officers were killed a few days later. Bronstein gets all huffy and suggests that the New York Times took the anecdote from the Chronicle—the headline of his post refers to the Times’s “borrowing policy” and he claims to have compared the bylines on the articles to see if they were the same:

Maybe the Times was just being economical. So I checked the names. Chronicle reporter Matthai Kuruvila wrote our story. There was another completely different name on the Times piece.

And it probably wasn’t just me. A few of the other (57 percent) of the Times readers who also get the Chronicle may have felt like they’d seen it before, too.

Here we are, always bitching about how Google or MSN or Yahoo is stealing our original content and making money from it. It doesn’t really help our case if we’re raiding closets and borrowing outfits from members of our own fraternity without at least asking.

To be fair, a reasonable amount of what was in the Times story was different than the Chronicle’s, and written well enough.

Why is this silly? For several reasons: first of all, it’s obvious from the Times article that the reporter interviewed Batts, and the exact quotations used in the anecdotes are different. So it’s pretty clear that this is one of Batts’s standard anecdotes, which he recounts whenever he talks to someone about his decision to leave Long Beach and come to Oakland.

Secondly, the Chronicle’s own article made clear that the anecdote was told by Batts at a press conference when he was introduced as Oakland’s next police chief, and in fact the Oakland Tribune also recounted the anecdote on the same day as the Chronicle, in its own article about his press conference. Does Bronstein believe that the Chronicle has exclusive rights to anecdotes told by public officials at press conferences? Or does he merely believe that once an anecdote has been used as the lede in one article, no other publications should be allowed to use that anecdote as a lede ever again? Unfortunately, Bronstein didn’t explain precisely what he thinks the Times’ crime was, because he was too busy coming up with metaphors about fraternity brothers raiding one another’s closets. (Earlier in the post, he used a metaphor about how the Times arrived in the Bay Area wearing “panties and floaties” instead of “full battle gear;” I knew Bronstein was kind of the macho type, but still….)

If Bronstein thinks it’s so terrible for a paper to use an anecdote which has already appeared in another paper, then he might be disturbed to discover that yet another version of Batts’s anecdote had appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram five days before it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Obviously this doesn’t mean that the Chronicle “borrowed” or “stole” anything from the Press-Telegram; all it means is that Batts tells this anecdote a lot, and reporters from many different papers (I think we’re up to four so far, after about 2 minutes worth of “research” on my part) find the anecdote interesting enough to feature prominently in their articles.

Bronstein ends his post this way:

Note to NYTimes Editor Bill Keller who, like his predecessors, still puts out a generally impressive product: The interwebs has all sorts of digital magic to check stories for prior use. Punch up the Tribune before you make your next move into Chicago.

Note to former SFChronicle Editor Phil Bronstein: The interwebs has all sorts of digital magic to check stories for prior use. Punch up the Google before you make your next indignant complaint about an oft-repeated anecdote being proprietary to the Chronicle.

Local newspaper executives have said that they are not threatened by the Times’s expansion of its Bay Area coverage, and that’s probably true in some ways—the Times is not really equipped to compete with local dailies when it comes to getting scoops or covering breaking news, and local publishers and editors certainly have bigger problems than the New York Times to worry about. Bronstein’s post suggests to me, however, that resentment about the NYT’s bigfooting on local turf, which has always existed in regional newsrooms, may have grown larger now that the Times has planted a flag more securely in Bay Area soil. And while the Times may not be able to compete journalistically with the Chronicle, it can certain compete for home delivery subscribers and web readers.

13 Responses to “The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks”

  1. brittney says:

    I am in complete agreement.

  2. wordnerd says:

    I guess none of the Times’ 100 new cuts will be in the bloated Bay Area bureau…

  3. dc says:

    Possible new marketing slogan: “The New York Times: Dying Less Quickly Than Our Competitors!”

  4. unique distance from isolation says:

    Thanks for making me laugh more than once. Punch up the google indeed.

    Speaking of the Chronicle, Richard Rodriguez has a bloated piece in Harper’s on dying newspapers in general and the Chronicle in particular in which he waxes orotund about how as a city’s newspaper goes, so goes the city’s sense of place. I was sympathetic. Today my colleague was showing me her iphone, which she says is her partner’s preferred vehicle for reading the newspaper. This made me shiver–partly because I actually really liked the gadget and in fact coveted, and so could see myself hunched over my little screen even more than I now hunch over my (slightly) bigger one… Then after reading Rodriguez I was ready to swear off this laptop too–but here I am now, again, as usual.

  5. dc says:

    udfi: If you do swear off the laptop, we could probably work out a home delivery option for hard copies of Fragmentary Evidence. I suggest keeping the laptop, though. I think Rodriquez is a real treasure—unabashedly gloomy, and constantly reminding us of how far we’ve wandered from what really matters. Yet despite all that he’s a pleasure to listen to. (I forget where I heard him interviewed recently—pretty sure it wasn’t NPR or PBS, but where else could it have been?)

    I wasn’t the only one to ridicule Bronstein for his dumb post, although I was less abusive than some others. Bronstein got defensive in a follow-up post, and managed to mangle the name of the Long Beach Press-Telegram (he called it the Post-Telegram). He seems pleased that he managed to get some attention—I think what he really craves is a cage match with Bill Keller, so he can prove once and for all who wears battle gear and who wears panties and floaties. I assume everyone knows that his two non-journalistic claims to fame are a long marriage to Sharon Stone (now over) and getting badly bitten by a 10-foot komodo dragon at the San Diego zoo.

  6. eric says:

    $7?!

  7. dc says:

    $6.95 plus tax—so that issue actually ended up costing me $7.63 (we have a 9.75% sales tax here in Oakland, in order to fund the dysfunctional state and local governments which still can’t manage to provide basic services anymore).

    Of course, I could have just gotten an annual 12-issue subscription for $16.97, which would have given me access to the article online, but I don’t particularly like reading long articles online if I don’t have to. (I could also have gone to the library, but I wanted to be able to read it at my leisure, and I was happy to support the local shop where I bought it.)

    I enjoyed the article. I haven’t read anything else in the magazine yet, but I plan to, and I think I’ll get my $7.63 worth of utility.

  8. wordnerd says:

    Hooray for Utility–a unit of measurement so fundamental that even money can be converted to it!

  9. Spammer says:

    You completed various fine points there. I did a search on the topic and found a good number of persons will have the same opinion with your blog.

  10. unique distance from isolation says:

    How did that last comment get through your filter? And why on this post? Hm.

  11. dc says:

    About 30 spam comments a day get left on a wide variety of my posts going back to the beginning of the blog. Almost all of them are trapped in my spam filter so I don’t even have to see them unless I browse through the filtered comments (I do this every few days just to make sure there weren’t any false positives). Every so often a piece of spam slips through, and I usually delete it before anyone else has a chance to see it. For some reason more spam has been slipping through the filter in the past few days—I’ve had to delete three or four spam comments in the past week, whereas I usually only have to delete a spam comment once every month or two. The spammers must have improved their programs in order to better fool the filters. Presumably the spam filter will eventually get updated to combat the new and improved spam software, but in a worst case scenario, I would have to change the commenting system so that only people who have had previous comments approved would be able to post comments immediately. New commenters would have to wait for me to moderate their first comment manually. That would be a shame, since I dislike comment moderation. (Last Friday, I tried to leave a comment on an Oakland Tribune blog post which had specifically asked for people to “share their thoughts below;” my comment is still supposedly “awaiting moderation” 4 days later. Apparently any other comments on the blog post are also “awaiting moderation,” because the it doesn’t show a single comment on it yet. That’s a great way to kill a struggling blog—ask for comments, then fail to enable them.)

    Anyway, I’ll leave this particular spam comment, since you bothered to comment on it, but I neutered it by removing changing the “commenter’s” name to “Spammer” and removing the hyperlink under the name. Take that, Mr. “download drivers windows 7”!

  12. unique distance from isolation says:

    Ah–I thought you were doing it manually already. If I use a different “Name” my comment doesn’t show up immediately, and I thought the delay was waiting for you. So the filter isn’t instantaneous?

  13. dc says:

    I think I had it set up that way at one time, but currently anyone can leave a comment and it will show up immediately, even if the person has never left a comment before, or is using a new username. The only exceptions are comments identified as spam by the filter, or comments which have more than 2 hyperlinks in them—I look at those first to make sure they’re not spam, or quasi-spam.

Leave a Reply