The New York Times’ Slightly Inept Article On The Ogletree/Tribe Affair
The day before Thanksgiving The New York Times carried an article on the Ogletree/Tribe affair. With only few and minimal exceptions, the article was merely a rehash of what has been said before, extensively, in The Boston Globe, on the AUTHORSKEPTICS website, on this blog (by both the blogger and those who replied to him), and on other websites. A mere rehash does not speak well of The Times, does it, given its oft (self) vaunted ability to bring more resources to a story than anyone else can? Nor is it as if the reporter and editors had but little time to inquire into the subject. The story was in the works for a minimum of nearly one month, and, for all I know, longer.
Nor was the story wholly accurate -- after a minimum of nearly one month to inquire. It said -- with typical media deference to accomplished Harvardians like Professor Tribe? -- that he was outed after he "raised questions on a legal affairs Web site about the ‘larger problem’ of ‘writers, political office seekers, judges and other high government officials passing off the work of others as their own.’" This is accuracy worthy of The Times’ own Jayson Blair. Professor Tribe did not "raise" these questions, nor were his comments made on a "legal affairs" website. The website deals with many national issues -- "national affairs" is even in its name -- and legal matters are perhaps one of the least raised kinds of issues it deals with. And rather than Professor Tribe having "raised" the pertinent questions, he was merely replying to and for some reason felt compelled to volunteer a form of agreement with the writer who had raised the questions. In fact, Professor Tribe’s email letter, which was posted on the website, said, "As to the larger problem you describe -- the problem of writers, political office-seekers, judges and other high government officials passing off the work of others as their own -- I think you’re focusing on a phenomenon of some significance." (Emphasis added.)
Whether these mistakes in The Times’ article were the fault of the reporter or the editor cannot currently be known by outsiders, and probably never will be. The reporter knew -- or most certainly should have known -- the truth, and there is at least some additional reason to think the fault may be with the editors (although there is also some reason to think it lies with the reporter). All one can say with a degree of conviction is that the general failure to go beyond rehashing what others have already written, plus the mistakes, plus all this having been perpetrated by the supposed queen, or flagship, of American journalism, is further evidence of what some (including me) see as the wideranging incompetence of journalism today. One cannot wonder that Lee Bollinger desired to change things at Columbia’s school of journalism.
There is more to question about the article. How come The Times could quote very few people -- almost nobody -- but people from Harvard and Stephen Gillers, whom it regularly quotes. Lots of other people have weighed in on the Tribe/Ogletree matters with very pertinent comments. Are Richard Posner, Michael Parenti, John Gardner of Oxford and Yale, webmaster Eric McErlain, and numerous "unknown little people" who put intelligent comments on the Web not worth speaking to or quoting? A few weeks ago, The Times’ own ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, wrote a column that commented on The Times habitual practice of quoting a small number of favorites. Okrent even mentioned that Gillers himself had already appeared in The Times 24 times this year -- "five under his own name, the rest in pieces by Times’ writers." The article on the Tribe/Ogletree affair was just more of the same, more sycophancy to the greatly established.
It was more of the same but even worse. The Times reporter apparently was looking for someone to say that the opposition to what Tribe and Ogletree had done was simply a politically motivated attack by conservatives on two liberal icons. (The reporter even asked a pretty liberal person -- me -- whether he had assailed the two law professors’ misconduct because he was a conservative.) The reporter got what she seems to have wanted from Gillers, who said, apparently referring to an article in a conservative magazine, "‘It’s payback time.’" She also quoted Gillers as saying that the discovery of Ogletree’s transgression, and a (somewhat hiding-the-ball) statement Ogletree felt forced to issue about what he had done, were humiliation enough: "‘The discovery is the punishment,’ Professor Gillers said." So we are supposed to think that mere exposure is enough, eh? That is why Joe Ellis, a lovely guy, got suspended for a period and, I gather, lost his chair? That is why Michael Bellesiles got canned defacto. That is why Doris Goodwin Kearns lost various talking head opportunities? That is why Martha Stewart, the Enron crowd and the rest of those corporate crooks shouldn’t go to jail -- because the discovery of their misconduct is humiliation enough for them? And the oft-quoted Professor Gillers is one of our country’s leading on legal ethics experts yet? -- is perhaps the leading expert on legal ethics? Oh, boy.
And by the way, why didn’t The Times quote somebody saying, in opposition to Professor Gillers’ comment that "‘It’s payback time,’" that it doesn’t matter if the conservative magazine did or did not take out after Tribe because of a desire for payback. For Tribe, and Ogletree likewise, shouldn’t have done what they did, and deserve exposure and punishment regardless of whether they or the whistleblowers are liberal, conservative or believe that green cheese is God. (Apparently in opposition to Gillers’ view, The Times did, I note, quote Harvard’s truly estimable Professor Howard Gardner as saying that "‘When norms of scholarship are violated in a material way . . . significant consequences should follow.’")
Nor did The Times pay much attention to the much broader problem exemplified by the Tribe/Ogletree affair -- the problem responded to by Tribe -- not "raised" by him -- when he replied to another person’s posting by agreeing that a major problem exists because so many people are passing off the work of others as their own -- the work of their assistants, clerks, subordinates and others who are paid to write stuff to which the big cheeses falsely put their names. The closest The Times came to discussing this wideranging problem was by quoting -- albeit not until the very last paragraph of its article -- Howard Gardner’s salient comment that "‘Scholarship -- the core activity of the university -- cannot be delegated to assistants.’" There was, however, nothing in The Times article about the phenomenon of (mis)appropriation of the work of others outside the academic world, where such conduct is widespread. A newspaper that was home to the Rick Bragg affair -- involving the use of others’ work without attribution -- was blind to the question of (mis)appropriating the work of others? Or did those keen minded Timesmen think that the rest of us, being dolts, had all forgotten the Rick Bragg affair, so that The Times didn’t have to take account here of the general social question of people all over the United States dishonestly claiming credit for the work of others?
In its article The Times said that "Ogletree said he had been disciplined, but neither he nor Harvard would be more specific." Tribe’s misconduct, it continued, "is still under review, according to Harvard officials." All of which raises the question, of course, of just what if any punishment has been or is to be visited on Tribe and Ogletree. Has Ogletree been punished -- if in truth he was punished -- by some mere slap on the wrist? Will anything significant really happen to Tribe? Is Dean Kagan, who has been quoted as saying that what Ogletree did was "a serious scholarly transgression," nonetheless just stalling around for time, figuring, or at least hoping, that the problem will go away if enough time passes?
One can, of course, sympathize with Dean Kagan. She must be under lots of pressures, perhaps conflicting ones. She seems to know that what was done wasn’t right -- was in fact pretty bad. On the other hand, she has two of her stars involved, with sympathetic noises having been made about one of them by a third star (whom The Times also quotes or publishes at the drop of a hat). What is more, lots of commentary on the Web and elsewhere indicates that the most overarching problem raised by the whole business -- the problem of other people doing the work for which stars then dishonestly claim credit -- is very widespread in the academic world and elsewhere. (Is it widespread as well at Dean Kagan’s law school, as one suspects from various statements and occurrences?) So one can see that Dean Kagan may catch a lot of flak no matter what she does. She may catch it from the overwhelmingly huge number of denizens of the world of dishonesty, whose ox would be gored if she came down hard on dishonesty. And she may catch it from those who want to see a more honest academy, and for that matter a less dishonest America, if she doesn’t come down hard on Tribe and Ogletree. Of course, if she’s worth a damn she’ll come down hard on the dishonesty, will uphold standards, and, as for the expectable flak from those whose ox is gored, will accept the adage that one is known by one’s enemies.*
*If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.