WaPo suspended Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Sari Horwitz on Wednesday after Marchus Brauchli confirmed that Horwitz had plagiarized the Arizona Republic’s reporting on Jared Loughner.
In reporting Horwitz’s suspension, Howie Kurtz called her a “great reporter.”
This is odd, considering that what Horwitz did is the journalism analog of a trained chef at a really nice restaurant spitting on a customer’s meal during rush hour and calling it au jus.
Why is Horwitz getting a pass? Was she spared because she has won two Pulitzers? That award likely counts for a lot when you’re swatting away pesky charges of flat-out stealing, as Maureen Dowd will tell you. Then again, MoDo only stole one paragraph, and Horwitz, who has a weak personal brand, stole 12!
My guess is that she’s skating on a three-month suspension because she played the “I’m old and the Internet is scary” card. This is from Paul Farhi’s story:
Horwitz electronically cut and pasted material from the Republic and then placed it in a lengthy Microsoft Word document with other notes she had taken about the shooting, according to people familiar with the matter. Under deadline pressure, she transferred some of this material to her stories, delivering it to her editors as if she had written it herself.
If you followed Gerald Posner’s graceless fall from his perch at The Daily Beast, Horwitz’s excuse likely sounds familiar:
The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer—with two years or more on a project—to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.” For the Beast articles, I created master electronic files, which contained all the information I developed about a topic—that included interviews, scanned documents, published articles, and public information. I often had master files that were 15,000 words, that needed to be cut into a story of 1,000 to 1500 words.
In the compressed deadlines of the Beast, it now seems certain that those master file[s] were a recipe for disaster for me. It allowed already published sources to get through to a number of my final and in the quick turnaround I then obviously lost sight of the fact that it belonged to a published source instead of being something I wrote.
When approached by her managers, Horwitz channeled Posner point for point: Notes that were rich and thorough, but poorly documented. Tight deadlines in a digital age. A mix-up. Shock. Shame. Repeat.
WaPo managers told Farhi that they checked many of Horwitz’s previous stories for plagiarism, and found none. They should’ve checked her excuse.
If you (like me), have sitting on your desk a 6,000 word profile about an alcoholic rodeo clown whose least interesting accomplishment in life is murdering his wife’s lover, and you cannot sell this piece to any magazine anywhere, Chris Jones’ post on the “basics” of profile writing probably makes you want to scream:
In the way that a bad idea will doom a feature from the start, choosing the wrong subject will doom a profile. I think we too often make the mistake of profiling people because they’re famous or because they’ve done something amazing. The rub is, sometimes—but not always—people who do amazing things are really, really boring, because they’ve dedicated their entire lives to a singular pursuit. There’s no conflict, no tension, no soft edges in which we might find purchase. They’re just… machines. For instance, someone like Albert Pujols is obviously an outstanding baseball player, but I think it would be very hard to write a good profile about him. I’d be willing to bet that the bullpen catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers would make for a more interesting story. That dude—and I just looked him up: Marcus Hanel, who apparently has enormous hands—would be my pick every time.
Every editor you’ve spoken to about your rodeo clown story has told you that it’s a very interesting story and a very good piece of writing, but that nobody wants to read about a nobody.
Tom Scocca, who wasn’t always so cynical, said this about Jones’ suggestion to focus on the bullpen catcher with the big hands:
It is also wonderful advice if you are writing tenderly crafted profile stories on your own typewriter, at home, to staple together and pass out to your aunts and uncles. Assuming you have the scratch for airfare to Arizona, to go see the Brewers. Write what you love!
Some major American consumer magazines do actually run “tenderly crafted profile stories” about non-famous people. Why, John McPhee’s “Travels in Georgia” doesn’t contain a single famous person, except for a brief appearance towards the end by Jimmy Carter, who wasn’t yet president in 1973.
But seriously: Non-famous people get profiled in places as celebrity-obsessed and image-driven as Esquire, they just don’t make it on the cover (duh), and they don’t get profiled by people who aren’t Chris Jones; or Chuck Klosterman, who got to profile nobodies for Spin and Esquire, or Susan Orlean, who got to profile an unaccomplished child and a dog for the New Yorker.
In fact, a feature writer who isn’t on staff with Esquire probably has no choice but to profile whoever’s on the bench anyway, because Jones has an exclusive with Pujols, and no-namers have to learn the craft somehow. We might as well profile other no-namers. (Preferably, up-and-comers.)
Then you can publish the profile on your tumblr and email the link to your aunt and uncle and pray to god that a mediasaur notices and puts you on the Pujols beat.
I sort of giggled at this, until I remembered that it’s a charge one of Savage’s own employees publicly lobbed at him after he said that fat people having heart attacks affects the insurance premiums of non-fat people. Stranger film editor Lindy West responded thusly:
“But but but my insurance premiums!!!” Bullshit. You live in a society with other people. I don’t have kids, but I pay taxes that fund schools. The idea that we can somehow escape affecting each other is deeply conservative. Barbarous, even. Is that really what you’re going for? Good old-fashioned American individualism? Please.
While I don’t think West is being careful (calling bullshit is not a very sound rebuttal to the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs), or that Sullivan’s definition of “conservative” is, um, consistent, they are both still right: Even when Savage advises people to have threesomes or find love on Craigslist, he does so with the caveat that readers place their personal well-being on a pedestal, and after that, the well-being of the people they are engaging. I’m not sure that’s conservative, per se, but it is pragmatic.