- THE BIRD: It's been going around.
While we’re not much on recounting the news from our own dugout around here, one recent dust-up involving the Arkansas Times bears repeating — at least the influential journo-mag Editor and Publisher thinks so.
Readers of the Times might remember a cover story from June of last year, written by managing editor Leslie Peacock, about the then-recently-rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker. Looking for a novel way to address what had by then become the most famous fowl in the world, Peacock hit upon the idea of constructing her story around the framework of poet Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” In bold type set into the text, she referred to Stevens’ poem to introduce 13 vignettes, each detailing some aspect of the way the scientific or pop-culture community viewed the discovery of an avian Loch Ness monster. It was — to toot our own horn — something of a little masterpiece, admired enough that it was reprinted a little over a month later in the Memphis Flyer, the alt-weekly of that city across the river.
While this week’s genius is usually next week’s birdcage liner, a funny thing happened on the way to the landfill. In the May 7 edition of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, there appeared a story by freelance writer Jack Hitt headlined “13 Ways of Looking at an Ivory Billed Woodpecker.”
Like Peacock’s story, it recounted the clandestine hunt for the woodpecker, and was broken into 13 sections.
Coincidence? We’ll leave that up to you. The similarities were enough that a couple of publications took note: Editor and Publisher magazine and the Memphis Flyer, whose editor Bruce VanWyngarden put an angry missive title — “13 Ways to Steal a Story Concept” — on the Flyer website the day after the NYT story. “It may not exactly be plagiarism, but it is damn close,” VanWyngarden wrote.
Though Peacock winged a letter to the New York Times, she has so far received no response from the newspaper. She did, however, get a call from Hitt, who said he’d never read her piece and was a fan of Wallace Stevens.
Editor and Publisher did get a response from the New York Times. Spokesperson Catherine Mathis told E&P: “None of the editors who worked on the story, nor Mr. Hitt, had heard of the Arkansas Times or Memphis Flyer articles until this week. The ivory-billed woodpecker has been much in the news, in our paper and elsewhere, and Mr. Hitt’s decision to write about the controversy came out of his own interest in birding, and in the South. The headline was written by the editors, though the idea was inherent in the piece.”
Read Peacock’s original cover story at www.arktimes.com.
Jonesboro ABC affiliate KAIT, Channel 8, was one of 77 television stations nationwide caught with their hand in the cookie jar by an April report on video news releases. Conducted by the Center for Media and Democracy, a media think-tank based in Madison, Wis., the year-long study tracked the nationwide use of 36 VNRs — “fake news” stories produced by public relations firms for corporations, government agencies, non-profits and the like, subtly espousing their clients’ products or services. Distributed to television stations across the country, VNRs are often broadcast unedited by stations as news content, without disclosing their origin to viewers.
Researchers for the Center for Media and Democracy found that KAIT used VNR footage twice between June 2005 and March 2006. On its Nov. 4, 2005, newscast, KAIT broadcast a VNR created for the financial firm Trend Micro on the online scam called “phishing.” Later, during their Jan. 26, 2006, newscast, the station aired a VNR created for General Motors, which detailed the behind-the-scenes making of Cadillac’s Super Bowl commercial. In both instances, the study says, the station never disclosed that the content was created by an outside source.
You can read the entire report at www.prwatch.org/fakenews/execsummary.