Phil Busse, managing editor of the Portland Mercury, is in the highly unusual position of hoping people believe he's incompetent. That's because the only alternative is believing he's a word thief.
Busse's dilemma doesn't stem from anything he wrote for the Mercury, a local light-on-news weekly aimed at the club-hopping set. Rather, his mea culpas refer to a story that was removed last week from the Internet magazine Salon.com after questions arose about his journalistic integrity.
On Sept. 19, Salon published a story by Busse titled "Down for the Count." An informative tale about the demise of prison boxing, the article paints a vivid picture of the last fight card staged at Oregon State Penitentiary. It's a masterful piece of writing, complete with detailed physical descriptions of the two combatants, highlights of their first two rounds and comments from attending guards. The problem is only one journalist was allowed to attend the bout--and it wasn't Busse. Rather, Michael Wilson covered the fight for The Oregonian, which published his story May 6.
Busse's article clearly contains original reporting. And prison records show he did visit in July. But in at least a dozen passages, Busse's piece is remarkably similar to Wilson's story. Some of Busse's word choices (describing the canvas, as did Wilson, as "mottled") might be chalked up to chance. But there was one sentence clearly lifted from Wilson's story.
Busse quotes from a letter written by inmate Donald Pitchforth pleading for continuation of the boxing program. Busse characterizes the letter as a "clumsy but sincere" petition sent "to the state." In truth, the letter, which Wilson had described four months earlier as "sloppy but earnest," was sent only to The Oregonian. Busse never saw it.
Similarly, Busse quotes former OSP superintendent Joan Palmateer defending the decision to cut the boxing program, saying inmates have alternative activities. "'They can walk; they can run; they can play horseshoes,' Palmateer said at a press conference," Busse writes. There was no press conference. Palmateer made that comment in a telephone interview with David Steves, a reporter for the Eugene Register-Guard, who used it in a story published April 22.
WW brought Busse's story to the attention of Wilson and Steves on Sept. 20. In response, The Oregonian sent Busse a letter noting the many similarities, including the Pitchforth quote, and questioning how such a detailed fight description could have been written without having been there.
Busse, in turn, contacted his editors at Salon and told them that there might be problems with the story. On Thursday, they removed the story from the website. "The piece as submitted and published suggested that the writer had been present at the match," says Scott Rosenberg, managing editor of Salon.com. Given that the match was crucial to the narrative, Rosenberg says, editing out that section would have been difficult. Toss in the borrowed quotes presented as original reporting and the problems became too big to fix.
Rosenberg, who put a note on the website explaining the story's departure, says he can recall only one other time when the 6-year-old magazine may have pulled an article. "We feel a bit blindsided by this," he says.
Neither Wilson nor Steves was eager to criticize Busse publicly, but both were clearly peeved. Wilson's editor, Susan Gage, says the paper is satisfied with Salon's response.
Busse admits he made a mistake but insists it was an honest one. He says that, in the process of researching his story, he jotted down information from The Oregonian and The Register-Guard but failed to adequately characterize the quotes in his own notes.
"This was due to an amount of sloppiness and neglect," he says. "I wish I had written the article immediately after I had taken my notes. Unfortunately, an amount of time, several weeks, passed before I wrote the article. I should have gone back to the original sources."
Mercury editor William Humphrey says Busse, whom he describes as a "great editor," obviously erred. But, he says, Salon shares the blame. "Frankly, I didn't think Salon did a good enough job fact-checking. In the grand scheme of things, I don't think it's a big deal."
But Tom Bivins, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Oregon, says Busse's blunders further the impression that articles published on the Web don't have to meet rigorous standards of ethics and accuracy. "When journalists use someone else's quotes, they're responsible for making that clear," he says. "I don't think putting something online forgives someone for that. Salon is a pretty upscale, reputable online magazine. This could potentially hurt their reputation."
Editor's note: On Sept. 27, WW reporter Nigel Jaquiss talked to Phil Busse by phone. Here is a partial transcript of the conversation.
WW: Phil, I read your piece in Salon last week, the boxing piece.
It was really good. As I read it, some of the details seemed really familiar to me.
And I'd realized I'd read it before, but I couldn't find it in the Mercury.
So, did you actually see the fight that you described?
No, I didn't, and I've gone through this now with Salon. I'd taken notes and gone through interviews to reconstruct the fight. There was an article in The Oregonian that I took notes from and also interviewed several of the inmates to put the fight together.
So you went back and reinterviewed the guys at OSP.
Correct. The piece was really supposed to be focused on Chris Lange, who is the sort of program director for that. That was really supposed to be the focus.
There were some of the details that I'd like to ask you about that were in the story. The letter from Donald Pitchforth, which was one of the quotes you used.
Wait, are you writing an article about this?
I don't know, to be honest with you. It sort of depends on your answers, Phil.
OK, I had a discussion with Salon today about this and they were concerned that the article gave off the impression that I was there, so we have taken it off of Salon. There really isn't an article here, there isn't an issue so much as just...
Let me ask you some questions. The letter from Donald Pitchforth, where he's petitioning the state...
Correct. That was actually a letter written to an Oregonian reporter, and that was a mistake on my part, when I was taking down my notes. There was a lapse of time between when I did some of the interviews and when the article was written, so in my notes it said: "Letter petitioning for the continuation of the program." When I went over my notes I wrongly assumed it was petitioning the state, for it was actually petitioning The Oregonian reporter to help out.
OK, so you were basically confused about your notes?
Well, that's one way of wording it.
Well, I don't want to put words in your mouth, so can you explain it to me again? I'm not sure I understood it.
When I looked at my notes several weeks later, I made some incorrect assumptions.
Did you put this together, or did The Oregonian talk to you about this?
No, The Oregonian did not put me up to this. I read your piece, back when it came out, I think on the 19th, and for whatever reason, the detail about the tattoo on the stomach stuck in my mind from when I read Wilson's piece when it was published. So, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like there were a lot of similarities. I'd like to ask you another question. There's a quote from Joan Palmateer: "They can walk, they can run, they can play horseshoes."
In your piece it says Palmateer said this at a press conference.
Do you remember when that press conference was?
I do not, that was again from my notes. I'm standing in the Minneapolis airport right now, I don't have a folder with my notes in front of me.
Phil, I've talked to Joan Palmateer and she said she's never had a press conference on any subject and she's never spoken to you or met you.
No, she has not.
OK, well, the quote you attribute to her at a press conference actually appeared in an April 22 story in the Eugene Register-Guard.
OK, I mean, I took, as I would do when I do any article, I took a look at other articles that are similar and I take notes for background materials, and there's a place, for example, and again I don't have this information in front of me, but there's a place where I attribute one of the quotes to one of the boxers that he gave in a boxing magazine, and I attributed to that boxing magazine in that interview.
Well, I guess the difference is, the Wilson quote, you say he was petitioning the state and he was not, he was writing to Wilson. The Palmateer quote you attribute to a press conference that didn't happen. It was a quote that The Register-Guard reporter got on a tape-recorded phone conversation. So, in my mind, there's a difference there. You attribute one quote to a boxing magazine; there was no attribution to the other two quotes.
Right, which was due to neglect on my part and the correction is running on Salon, and that truly is the end of the story. I've had email exchanges with The Oregonian and have talked with my editors at Salon, and I'd really appreciate it if we could just leave it at that. The corrections have run. I guess I'm just curious what your interest in this is. Would you have an interest in this if I weren't a writer for the Mercury?
I would have an interest if you were a writer for the Tribune or the Business Journal or The Oregonian; I mean, it's a local issue. I have no ax to grind with the Mercury.
You and I have never spoken before, but I know you're a pretty good writer, and I also know you're a law-school graduate, so you're not an unsophisticated guy by any means. So these two quotes are troubling, but there are a whole host of similarities between your story and The Oregonian's story in particular. I had an intern, who knows nothing about this issue, go through and highlight what she thought were similarities and she came up with 11. How would you think I should regard this?
[Long pause] I dunno. Honestly, this was due to an amount of sloppiness and neglect. I wish I had written the article immediately after I had taken my notes. Unfortunately, an amount of time, several weeks, passed before I wrote the article and when I went back to the notes. I should have gone back to the original sources. I understand that.
You said you talked to the people at Salon and you agreed that the impression might arise that you had been there, and you wanted to correct that impression.
Well, yes. I talked to the editors and we agreed. It was a collective decision.
Did you talk about the two quotes I just asked you about?
We had emailed one of my editors and talked directly about the quote in the letter; I had not brought up the other quote.
Well, I don't know what to say, Phil. I have no ax to grind with you or your paper, but it strikes me that this is sort of a serious issue.
It's serious in what regards? I mean, I think The Oregonian is happy with that I've admitted that I have shown some neglect here and Salon is running its correction.
Look, I'm not trying to bust your balls. Inattentiveness is one thing, but if you put the Wilson story and your story next to each other, there are an enormous number of similarities. There's obviously some original reporting at the end and an attempt to frame it in a larger context, but there's also the whole description of the fight, the discussion of conditions at OSP, the sentiments to prison guards that appear to be paraphrases of quotes from Wilson's story. With all due respect, it's hard to attribute that all to inattentiveness.
Like I said, the correction is running on Salon and my apologies have been made.