When investigative reporter Gerald Posner was busted for plagiarism by our sister publication, Miami New Times (among others), it was a big disappointment. It's the kind of thing that, at least temporarily, casts a shadow over all reporters -- folks who don't exactly have a whole lot of popularity to spare.
Posner resigned from The Daily Beast earlier this year, after it was found that he lifted passages from a Miami Herald article. Writing about the affair for Slate, media critic Jack Shafer gave Posner points for copping to the act: "There is no excuse," he's quoted as saying. "I take full responsibility."
Shafer quoted Daily Beast Executive Editor Edward Felsenthal as saying, "I'm convinced this was an unintentional aberration in an extraordinary career breaking news and doing top quality journalism with high ethical standards."
As always, it's heartening for a reporter when an editor has his or her back. You can't necessarily blame Felsenthal for sticking up for one of his men. Or at least that's how I responded to the story back then -- before I found out Tuesday that Posner did the same thing to me.
I stumbled onto it while checking into a possible update on a story I wrote about a controversial Houston doctor in 2009. Stanislaw Burzynski is a colorful fellow who claims to have formulated a remarkable treatment for cancer; my story investigated those claims.
I included what I'd like to think is a money-quote from an OBGYN named Tim Gorski. Here's the quote from my January 1, 2009, story:
Tim Gorski, an OB-GYN and president of the Dallas/Fort Worth Council Against Health Fraud, is a bit less diplomatic. "He's selling hope at a high price," Gorski says.
But what about all those patients who credit Burzynski with saving their lives? Don't they count for anything?
"How many people are there who feel like [televangelist] Benny Hinn saved their lives?" he says, adding that "People who are dead do not get up and say, 'Burzynski did nothing for me.'" Also, Gorski says, bold and unproven claims are "a problem for cancer in particular, because as soon as you get cancer, you've got a big target on your back [for] quacks to come and get you."
And here's Posner's November 11, 2009, Daily Beast piece:
But what about those patients...who claim they were cured by Burzynski? Dr. Tim Gorski, a gynecologist and president of the Dallas/Fort Worth Council Against Health Fraud, believes that it is not much different than when somebody is "cured" by a televangelist or a faith healer. Burzynski is "selling hope at a high price" and "people who are dead do not get up and say, 'Burzynski did nothing for me.' [That's why it's] a problem for cancer in particular, because as soon as you get cancer, you've got a big target on your back [for] quacks to come and get you."
When you interview people for a living, certain quotes tend to stay in your mind. For reporters in the trenches, where I'm pretty sure Posner hasn't been in a while, you tend to talk to a lot of government or corporate officials who give boilerplate, humdrum quotes, if any at all. So it's always a treat when someone speaks from the heart, like Gorski.
Unfortunately, sometimes you find out these gifts are well-rehearsed, and are just regurgitated for every reporter. Which is why, just for a nanosecond, I thought maybe Gorski gave Posner the same quote -- after all, Posner never said he got the quote from another publication.
But then it of course occurred to me that even the brackets "[ ]" were in the same place as in my story. (I think a lot of reporters long-remember the stylistic disappointment of having to throw in ellipses or other such devices to an otherwise perfect quote).
Which is why Posner's explanation for the Daily Beast thefts is especially weird and laughable, yet it's an explanation he appears to keep giving. And that explanation is this: he inadvertently saved bits of previously published stories with his own notes in the same file, and then later forgot which was which.
It's such an absurd claim, and frankly a lame defense, because it implies that Posner is saying his writing is indistinguishable from other writers'. He's saying, in essence, that he can't remember the moment he got a great quote, or finally got that elusive, obstinate source to spit out the facts, or woke up one day with the perfect lead to a story. It simultaneously implies lack of ownership and universal ownership, because anything Posner finds in his mysterious file may have been written by him.
Ultimately, what it boils down to is a lack of citation. Posner didn't take years of research and characterize them as his own; all he did was lift one little quote that, frankly, has hardly any bearing on the Stanislaw Burzynski story. All Posner needed to do, in my case and many others, was take two seconds to type the name of the publication he got his information from. It's a slap in the face to any reporter who works for a living.
Oddly, Posner wound up hiring attorney Mark Lane -- the grandaddy of JFK conspiracy theorists -- to threaten Miami New Times with a lawsuit for "tortious interference." See, Miami New Times claimed to find more instances of plagiarism in Posner's book, and the paper had the audacity to bring these claims to Posner's publisher.
That doesn't sound like tortious interference to me, but unlike Lane and Posner, I'm not an attorney. What does sound like tortious interference is a guy who repeatedly rips off other people's work and passes it off as his own. It's kind of funny that these two lawyers are able to find tortious interference when it comes to Posner's book-sale royalties, but when it comes to tortious interference with the truth, they couldn't care less.
Update: You can check out Miami New Times' take on this latest incident here.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.