MEMO to Katie Couric: You should send flowers to Don Imus.
No, not so the shock jock might spill his guts to her in the inevitable comeback-trail interview. Instead, Couric should be grateful that last week’s Imus uproar took the heat off “CBS Evening News” for its own embarrassing ethical lapse, this one involving plagiarism and other brands of deception. America, luckily for the former “Today” show co-host, has room for only one media scandal at a time.
But it would be unwise to bury the Couric case, because it underscores some of the trouble the news business is having managing new media (especially blogs and “vlogs”), not to mention its apparent need to mimic the rest of American business in over-marketing everything.
In case you missed it: In an April 4 video commentary posted on the Web, Couric mused about how kids are no longer as interested in local libraries as they once were. She even reminisced about getting her first library card as a youngster. But, as was soon discovered, much of the rest of the copy was lifted almost verbatim from a recent column by the Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Zaslow.
For one brief minute, it looked as if the No. 3 evening-news anchor might be a plagiarist. But the network quickly set the record straight: It was actually a producer who copied the Journal column without attribution. In other words: Couric didn’t plagiarize. Someone else did, in her name. (The producer, whose identity a CBS News spokeswoman refused to confirm, was fired, and the video was removed from the website.) CBS’ apology to readers characterized the incident as an “omission” -- that is, they want us to believe that they meant all along to credit the Journal and simply forgot.
Oh. Well, that’s better, isn’t it?
Despite the many connections between print journalism and its TV cousin, the two fields operate under some strikingly different rules of engagement. Newspapers and magazines have relatively few tribal norms -- that’s why newsrooms are such nutty places -- but plagiarism is the ultimate taboo. Suffice it to say that if this column were found to be lifted from somewhere else, tomorrow would bring me a new career detailing Duesenbergs in Jay Leno’s garage. Ditto if it were revealed that someone else actually wrote this.
A network evening newscast, though, tends to be a lot more liberal on questions of authorship. No one expects that every word read off a prompter and uttered on the air by Couric or Brian Williams or Charlie Gibson was carefully weighed and chosen personally by that anchor, guzzling antacid and hunched over his or her Underwood like Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Writing -- that’s what producers are for, silly.
COURIC’S “Notebook” video, however, blew right past any recognizable journalistic boundary, whether in print, on TV or online. The piece was delivered by the anchor as a personal commentary, beginning with: “I still remember when I got my first library card.” The subsequent revelation that Couric apparently wrote neither those words nor any of the following ones raises an important question: Is it healthy to get your news from someone who’s so detached from what she tells viewers? Is Couric a bit like newscaster Ron Burgundy in the movie “Anchorman,” whom a colleague tricks into uttering a profanity on the air merely by changing the verbiage on his teleprompter?
It’s obviously deceptive, said Edward Wasserman, the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, of Couric’s ghostwritten video. But to a certain extent the medium gives TV journalists a pass: “The audience becomes inured to a level of what is really deceit with respect to TV people.”
As a corrective for the library-video mess, Sandra M. Genelius, a CBS News spokeswoman, said the network will conduct “standards sessions” with its Web staff.
“We are actively discussing additional editorial procedures to hopefully ensure this never happens again,” she wrote in an e-mail.
(The network didn’t say whether Couric, whom it declined to make available for comment, would attend some of those remedial sessions or at least learn to pay more attention to what she says on camera.)
But is this entirely an editorial issue? That seems an important consideration as news organizations -- including the Los Angeles Times -- struggle to retain their audiences and engage with the Web. It seems clear, in retrospect, that the “Notebook” items are meant to be marketing as much as they are journalism -- a cheap way of keeping Couric in front of viewers during the 23 1/2 hours each day when “Evening News” isn’t on.
This, folks, is the media “cross-platforming” that makes the suits get all soft-eyed and dewy, and it’s what CBS hoped to use to vault the ratings for “Evening News” from third to first. But as this latest gaffe makes clear, the benefits of cross-platforming are often nebulous, while the risks to journalistic credibility are all too real.
Williams writes his own items for “The Daily Nightly,” the blog for “NBC Nightly News”; last week, for example, he filmed some evidently unscripted video from his office discussing MSNBC’s decision to yank Imus’ show. The segment drew more than 50 e-mails within a few hours, the anchor said.
Williams sees the value of giving “Nightly News” junkies an online outlet but tries to stay realistic about the potential: “I’m talking to people who are already viewers,” he told me. “It’s an enhancement to the 22 minutes we’re on the air.”
Although declining to offer his take on the Couric debacle, Williams did note that online isn’t simply the casual branding arena that some old-media execs assume it is. It has trip wires and quicksand pits all its own. On the Web, “nothing ever goes away,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anyplace we can go and say, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter as much here.’ ”
CBS may be learning that the hard way. Couric needs this latest embarrassment like Imus needs to take his show on the road with Michael Richards. In stark contrast to her “America’s Sweetheart” role on “Today,” she’s becoming an inviting target for pundits wielding shillelaghs. Her newscast is mired in third, a la Dan Rather, whose longtime reign at the CBS anchor desk ended in a hail of accusations about his journalistic credibility. And her broadcast’s story mix leaning toward soft features and op-ed-type contributors has drawn catcalls. In a recent interview with More magazine, Couric seems to acknowledge that her push for post-meridian gravitas has been bumpy.
“The people who used to watch me on ‘The Today Show’ are saying: ‘What happened to her? She’s not laughing and carrying on the way she used to,’ ” she said.
She’s got even less reason to laugh and carry on now. But as her former co-worker Imus learned last week, the spotlight never stops shining on media stars these days, for better and, often, for worse.
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org