If there's one person who should be relieved about the firing of Don Imus, it's CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric. All the airtime and ink devoted to Imus' getting fired from his radio show and its simulcast on MSNBC in the wake of racist comments about the Rutgers University women's basketball team has obscured the latest foul in Couric's rocky rookie season.
For those of you who missed it: A posting on Couric's blog, ostensibly a nostalgic piece about the use of libraries in the Internet age, not only was ghost-written by Melissa McNamara, a producer on the CBS News Website, but was substantially lifted from a March 15 Wall Street Journal column by Jeffrey Zaslow. McNamara got axed, and CBS issued a statement saying it will monitor blogs more carefully.
But should it end there?
As Timothy Noah wrote in a fine April 12 column in Slate, the idea of Couric's having a blog—the epitome of personal essay—that is largely written by someone else is “risible.” Compounding the sin of plagiarism is that the “Couric” posting, as Noah rightly noted, began with a personal remembrance: “I still remember when I got my first library card.” Perhaps a CBS Evening News feature on “false-memory syndrome” is in order.
This whole plagiarism affair tarnishes Couric's journalistic cred. And given her post as the anchor and ostensible managing editor of the CBS Evening News, it blackens the Eye Network's news division. The way Couric and company used the blog vogue as a marketing tool to put this faux varnish on her image was disingenuous and wrongheaded. Even for a TV journalist, a byline should mean something. A compact with the audience is broken when it's the work of someone other than the person getting the credit at the top of the page.
It goes one insidious step further when the work in question is a blog. Bloggers have increasingly made news lately for the liberties they can take with their opinions in so public a forum as the Web. But at least those people are the ones with their fingers on the keyboard.
We are big supporters of personal journalism in print and online. We applaud sharp, well-reported opinion and analysis that lends depth and personality to those who deliver the news. We loudly applaud network-news-site blogs—ABCNews.com comes to mind—that give those unseen producers a chance to expand on the work they do in the field for correspondents and get little acknowledgement on-air for doing so.
We're not naïve either. We know Couric is not alone in spouting ghost-penned observations. As Noah wrote in Slate, Dan Rather's commentaries in print and radio were often written by others. We know that much of the segments we see on various newscasts are as much or more the work of the producers off camera than of the attractive faces we see in sharp focus on-camera.
But this is a slippery slope.
Ghost writing is one thing; ventriloquism, another. If you want to bask in the glory of seeing your byline on the work of others, you have to be willing to take the blame when it all goes wrong.