Reporter accused of plagiarism tells Poynter his side of the story, but inaccurately
Joe Milliken has spent months trying to get his career back on track, but he says a post I wrote about him is making that difficult.
In March I wrote about a front page column by the editor of the Eagle Times, a small New Hampshire paper that accused Milliken of stealing quotes and passing them off as his own. Then-editor Roger Carroll, no longer with the paper, wrote that, “If one of my reporters did what Compass Sports Editor Joe Milliken did last week, they’d be fired on the spot.”
Carroll’s issue was that Milliken did not attend the basketball game he wrote about, but his story for the Compass included quotes that had been gathered by one of Carroll’s reporters. Carroll reached out to Milliken and his boss at the Compass to express his concerns. Milliken apologized at the time, but Carroll wanted him to admit to plagiarism. Milliken didn’t believe he plagiarized and declined to admit to that offense.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to look the other way anymore,” Carroll wrote. “Especially once it became clear — after a series of maddening email exchanges — that he would apologize for just about anything, but not for stealing my work.”
I contacted Milliken at the time, but he declined to comment because he said he was looking into his legal options. My post was published with quotes I gathered from Carroll. That was in March.
About a month ago, Milliken contacted me to ask if I could take down the story. He said he’s had difficulty finding work and lost many of his contracts due to Carroll’s accusation, which he says is false. Each time he has an opportunity for a new writing job, the people looking to hire him inevitably come across my post, he said. Milliken believes this results in him not getting the job or assignment.
“The accusations that Carroll made against me have greatly affected both my professional and personal life,” he said in a email interview. “As a freelance writer working from home, I lost all of my local freelance newspaper accounts (six in all) except for one. In every case, they simply said, ‘Joe, we like you, we like your writing and we believe you when you say that you didn’t plagiarize on purpose, but this situation is too ‘hot’ right now and we have to protect our investment.' "
Our approach at Poynter.org is to correct stories that are wrong and update stories with new information, but we typically deny requests to unpublish material. We explore alternatives, particularly when the story is accurate and complete but an embarrassment to a source or subject. We may also update the old story and create a new one, which is what we decided to do in this case once Milliken wanted to talk to us after setting aside his initial plan to sue Carroll, which proved too expensive and unpredictable, he said.
He wants to tell his side of the story and restore his reputation, and I agreed to write a follow-up article with his point of view.
I also reached out to Carroll to see how he now feels about his column on Milliken. Carroll is no longer at the paper, but the staff there forwarded my questions to him by email. He hasn’t replied, nor did the current leadership at the paper offer any comment.
The first thing Milliken wants people to know is he did in fact make it clear the quotes in question came from elsewhere.
“I have been a sports editor/writer in the Southern Vermont/Southwestern New Hampshire areas since 2005, and had written a ‘round up’ article about a high school basketball game in Townshend, Vermont… a game in which I did not attend personally,” he said. “In the article I talked about the game and gave statistics, and also included a couple coaches' quotes that I saw in Carroll's article."
“However,” he continued, “after the quotes I stated ‘told reporters after the game’ indicating that they were not quotes given to me personally. I also included in the article, a couple ‘stock photos’ that were clearly labeled as images that were not taken at this particular game. Therefore, why would I include photos that were clearly not from that game, if I was trying to give the impression that I was there? When I wrote that article, I can honestly tell you that I was not thinking ‘how can I make it look like I was at that game?' That thought never entered my mind.”
Milliken says Carroll called him up after article was published, and warned him that he was planning to write a column about what he saw as plagiarism.
“He called me a liar and attempted to intimidate and get me to admit that I was 'intentionally trying to give the impression that I was at that game,' and that was not the case and that is not what I apologized for,” Milliken said. “I apologized to him for the misunderstanding and that he took my article the wrong way, but I also repeatedly told him that it was not my intention to give the impression that I was at the game, hence, my submitting of photos with the article that were not even from said game.”
The conversation was heated, and Milliken says he apologized repeatedly. But he declined to admit he’d tried to pretend he was at the game, or that he plagiarized. That apparently led Carroll to write his column.
“Several times over, I apologized for the misunderstanding ... he told me that he didn’t think my apology was sincere enough, so [Carroll said] ‘it looks like I am going to have to write this article’… and hung up on me," Milliken said. "He even pettily accused me of putting in for the mileage as if I had gone to the game."
Milliken says the fact that he noted that the quotes came from elsewhere meant the accusations were unjustified and inaccurate.
However, that wasn’t the only accusation Carroll made about Milliken’s work.
"Milliken's been taking stuff out of other papers and passing it off as his own for years," wrote Carroll, citing the fact that other unnamed local journalists had expressed that sentiment to him.
“I was really upset when Carroll accused me of this, so I approached a couple local sports writers ... who I had been working alongside for years and asked them directly if they thought I had been doing this,” Milliken told me. “To my dismay, a couple of these gentlemen, indeed, said they thought I was guilty of this.”
Milliken said he had no idea people had concerns about his reporting.
“I would see these reporters every week at local games and have friendly conversations with them and yet no one, ever once, said to me that they thought I was stealing their information. Not Once!,” Milliken said.
He’s now aware of the concerns and regrets that it was an issue. Carroll’s column helped raise awareness, but for Milliken it also painted him as a repeat plagiarist -- an accusation he rejects.
Milliken hopes that by speaking publicly he'll be able to win back some writing contracts, and his reputation.
“People around town still walk up to me and ask why I am not covering local sports anymore, and that they miss my sports writing and photography about their kids, grand children, friends,” he said.
Milliken is bothered by the fact that Carroll moved on from the Eagle Times, leaving him to deal with the aftermath.
“In closing, what makes this all even tougher for me to swallow is the fact that both Carroll, and the general manager who let that article run on the front page, are not even at the Eagle Times publication anymore,” he said. “So here I am, still a member of this community and wanting to do my writing and to positively promote the good things around me, and I can't because none of these publications will currently accept my work. Whereas Mr. Carroll is nowhere to be found.”
I had attempted to get in touch with Carroll to get his reaction to Milliken’s comments, but an email that his former employer said they would forward to him never made it Carroll’s inbox.
After this post was published, Carroll read it and got in touch. He provided me with a scan of Milliken’s offending article, which I’ve included below. (It was never put online).
As a result of the information provided by Carroll, on November 2, I updated this post.
Contrary to what he told me, nowhere in the article did Milliken attribute the coaches’ quotes with the words “told reporters after the game.” The photos also didn’t include any notation about them being from files. The piece was also clearly a game story, rather than a “round up,” as Milliken claimed.
“Joe builds his case on his own set of demonstrably false statements, which deviate from reality in several respects,” Carroll told me by email.
He’s right: Milliken’s claims about his article are not true. Even worse, Carroll provided a comparison between the quotes Milliken used and the ones he gathered and published in the Times. This comparison shows Milliken altered the quotes in question -- quotes he never gathered.
"He’s done that for us all year,” Ladue said. “For him to make that play, we expect it. He’s a phenomenal player.”
Milliken in the Compass:
"He's done that for us all year. He's such a phenomenal player for us, we expect him to make that play."
“We just lost focus in that second quarter, that really was the difference-maker” said Leland & Gray coach Phil Davis, whose team had prepared for the Windsor pressure. “We just didn’t take care of the ball.”
Milliken in the Compass
"We just lost our focus in the second quarter, and that was the difference in the game," Leland & Gray coach Phil Davis said after the game. "We didn't take care of the ball enough."
In both cases Milliken changed the quotes. This is tantamount to fabrication, since he never spoke to the people in question.
I asked Milliken why he made false claims about his work, and why he altered the quotes.
“Please know that I did not purposely mislead you, the articles in question are from several months ago, and I did not have any hardcopy to go by,” he told me. “I thought that I had indicated ‘told reporters after the game,’ in the article and I regret that it was not included. I also do not recall altering the quotes.”
Even with the acknowledgement that he included none of the attribution elements he initially claimed as his defense, and that the quotes were altered, Milliken contends he didn’t try to make it seem like he was at the game.
"I still stand by my words that I did not intentionally try to give the impression that I was at that basketball game,” he said. “Mr. Carroll called me for an apology, I gave him one and said that I would learn from the incident and misunderstanding.”
At the time, Carroll said he wrote his column about the incident because he didn’t feel Milliken was being genuine with his apology. He repeated that sentiment to me by email.
“Joe's ‘apology’ consisted of saying ‘I'm sorry you feel that way,’ when I accused him of lifting my work,” Carroll said in an email. “He always used that ‘you feel’ qualifier so he wouldn't have to accept responsibility for his actions. It had nothing to do with how I felt, of course, but by couching it that way I felt he attempted to shift the onus onto me -- as if, by feeling that way, I was somehow in the wrong. So, yes, he apologized repeatedly, but NEVER for the actual plagiarism and, yes, that irked me and I called him on it.”
Milliken’s initial comments to me expressed frustration that Carroll was no longer at the Eagle Times, yet the column calling out Milliken’s work was still reverberating in the local area.
“So here I am, still a member of this community and wanting to do my writing and to positively promote the good things around me, and I can't because none of these publications will currently accept my work,” Milliken said. “Whereas Mr. Carroll is nowhere to be found.”
To which Carroll replied: “I'm not sure what Joe means by ‘nowhere to be found.’ I'm not at the Eagle anymore, but I post daily on my Facebook page and have gone so far underground that I have an op-ed column in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It's not like I'm in hiding. I live in the same house, have the same dog.”
At this point, I’m in disbelief that Milliken would make such an effort to reach out and ask for a chance to address Carroll’s accusations, given what actually happened. (Though Milliken’s first request was for us to remove the article...)
His hope was that an update to my original post would help him clear his name. It may have done the opposite.