Margaret Sullivan's post had this headline:
Was an Accusation of Plagiarism Really a Political Attack?A fair-minded but less-thorough public editor might simply have typed "Yes," and headed off for the gym.
(And that editor might also have noticed that, by being phrased as a question, the headline subtly reproduces the very "cover-the-controversy" ethos that her post itself decries.)
But anyway, after laying out the facts of the case, Sullivan concluded:
There’s a problem here. An article about polarized reaction to a high-profile book is, of course, fair game. But the attention given to the plagiarism accusation is not.Digby identifies the defense served up by the reporter of the original Times article and her editors as an invocation of Cokie's Law, by which, if a tabloid or partisan internet source makes a scurrilous claim, the "respectable" media are then allowed to repeat it in the guise of "reporting on the controversy." The fact that Sullivan seizes upon the phrase "out there" strongly suggests that she's well aware of Cokie's Law, although she's too polite to invoke the name of one of the highest-ranking Villagers in such a context.
Yes, the claim was “out there” but so are smears of all kinds as well as claims that the earth is flat and that climate change is unfounded. This one comes from the author of a book on the same subject with an opposing political orientation. By taking it seriously, The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had.
And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn’t help much. It’s as if The Times is saying: “Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it.” Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.
So I’m with the critics. The Times article amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader.
In a few years, historian Rick Perlstein will publish the fourth and final book in his history of modern American conservatism ("The Invisible Bridge" is the third.) By then it will probably take a Google search to remember the name of the Times reporter who mainstreamed Shirley's swift boat-style attack on Perlstein. But we can confidently predict the second paragraph of any published report or review of that book.
It will feature the phrases "marred by controversy" and "allegations of plagiarism." The final sentence of the paragraph will discharge the writer's ethical responsibility by mentioning that the "controversy" was a right-wing character assassination job, and the "allegations" were baseless, but it won't matter. Yes, Perlstein will be respected, and his books will sell and be read. But the "p-word" will, however unjustly, be tied to his ass like a tin can.
Because, you know, it's "out there" now.