The troubling case of Jill Abramson, Bezos vs. National Enquirer and more layoffs hit journalism

So what should we make of Jill Abramson?

Plagiarism allegations are now dogging the former New York Times executive editor. Even her response Thursday likely won’t please those who believe she has broken one of journalism’s most sacred rules. Abramson denied that she plagiarized, but she did say that some parts of her book, “Merchants of Truth,’’ weren’t appropriately and fully attributed.

But the damage has been done. To the book and, worse, to Abramson’s reputation.

(For the record, two weeks ago I scheduled an interview to talk to Abramson about her book this morning, but through her publicist late Thursday, Abramson postponed the interview.)

This latest controversy started Wednesday night, just one day after her book was released. In a series of tweets, “Vice News Tonight” correspondent Michael Moynihan laid out several examples of passages from Abramson’s book that looked similar to previously published material.

Abramson just happened to be appearing on Fox News Wednesday night when the allegations went viral. On the air, she denied that she had plagiarized. Later Wednesday, she went on Twitter to say she would review the passages in question.

On Thursday, she told the Washington Post (and later repeated on Twitter): “I was up all night going through my book because I take these claims of plagiarism so seriously.’’

Here’s what she came up with in a statement posted on Twitter.

“My book has 70 pages of footnotes, and nearly 100 source citations in the Vice chapters alone, including the New Yorker, the Columbia Journalism Review, The Ryerson Review of Journalism, and a Masters’ thesis, the sources from which Mr. Moynihan says I plagiarized.

“The notes don’t match up with the right pages in a few cases and this was unintentional and will be promptly corrected. The language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text. This, too, will be fixed.

“I wouldn’t want even a misplaced comma so I will promptly fix these footnotes and quotations as I have corrected other material that Vice contested.

“The book is over 500 pages. All of the ideas in the book are original, all the opinions are mine. The passages in question involve facts that should have been perfectly cited in my footnotes and weren’t.”

So, does that sound like a reasonable explanation of an innocent and lazy mistake? Or does it sound as if she is covering her tracks after being caught?

Another former New York Times executive editor, Bill Keller, who was Abramson’s colleague and boss at the Times, tweeted:

“Jill Abramson is a journalist of courage and integrity. She has written a great book on the profound transformation of the news business, richly documented and full of insight. It’s distressing that some apparent carelessness in attribution might overshadow her achievement.’’

When news of this broke Wednesday night, the first thing that popped into my head was: This has to be some sort of misunderstanding, a regrettable but unintentional mistake. After all, this is Jill Abramson. She held one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism when she was in charge of The New York Times’ newsroom. No one talented and smart enough to rise to that job could be capable of plagiarism, could they? No one that talented and smart would author such shoddy work, would they?

Yet you read the passages as laid out by Moynihan and others and it’s hard to dismiss these allegations of plagiarism as mere coincidences, misunderstandings or acts of carelessness. Her response Thursday didn’t do much to fix the damage that has been done. She basically said, yep, I messed up and I will fix it.

We just don’t know what “messed up” really means. At worst, it’s outright plagiarism. At best, it’s really sloppy work. In fact, at this point, calling her work sloppy is about the best thing she could hope for.

Whatever happens from here on out, one of journalism’s most respected figures has seen her reputation tarnished, probably forever, over a book that was meant to put a triumphant exclamation point on her career.

Bezos vs. National Enquirer

In this Sept. 13, 2018, file photo Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, speaks at The Economic Club of Washington's Milestone Celebration in Washington. Bezos says the National Enquirer is threatening to publish nude photographs of him unless his private investigators back off the tabloid that detailed the billionaire’s extramarital affair (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Wow, where to even begin with this story?

Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, in a bombshell blog post on Medium Thursday evening, accused the parent company of the National Enquirer of trying to blackmail him. Wait, it gets even more bizarre.

Bezos claims AMI threatened that the Enquirer would post sexually explicit photos that he had sent to his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez. Bezos said AMI wanted him to halt an investigation into how the Enquirer obtained texts messages he had sent Sanchez.

According to Bezos’ post, AMI also wanted Bezos to publicly deny any political motivation in the Enquirer’s coverage of his divorce to wife, MacKenzie. The Enquirer broke the story last month that Bezos was seeing Sanchez on the same day Bezos and his wife announced they were divorcing.

Bezos’ stunning Thursday night blog post includes what Bezos claims is an email from AMI that goes into explicit detail of at least 10 photos the Enquirer claimed to have. But Bezos said he would not be blackmailed. He wrote:

“Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?’’

He closed his post by writing:

“Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption. I prefer to stand up, roll this log over and see what crawls out.’’

As CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out in his newsletter, “The consensus in media and tech circles Thursday night: Bezos did a brave and admirable thing by going public with this. By exposing what he called an ‘extortion’ attempt, he has won a lot of goodwill.”

One of those reactions was Wired editor Nicholas Thompson, who tweeted:

“Amazing that the National Enquirer has been so repulsive that the whole Internet is rooting for a billionaire who got busted for an affair.”

Layoffs continue

More journalism layoffs. Now up? GateHouse Media, which publishes 145 daily newspapers and 325 community publications. How many were laid off is not publicly known, but it appears sports sections and photo departments took the brunt of the purge.

Earlier this week, LevittownNow.com reported that the entire photo team at the Bucks County Courier Times and Doylestown Intelligencer in Pennsylvania and the Burlington County Times in New Jersey were let go. Also out were members of the video production team and some newsroom management.

Meantime, several sportswriters announced their layoffs on Twitter, including the Beaver County (Pennsylvania) Times’ Greg Macafee and the Sarasota (Florida) Herald-Tribune’s Scott Lockwood. Macafee was one of at least six in his newsroom. Lockwood was one of three let go in Sarasota. Sportswriter Martin Renzhofer tweeted he was laid off when Gatehouse decided to drop sports sections from its weeklies in Massachusetts.

Last week, photographer Jeremy Hogan was laid off after 22 years by the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana. The paper had been sold to GateHouse just two days earlier. In a radio interview with WFHB, Hogan said, “I was home sick and I got a phone call that I no longer had a job.’’

Holding someone accountable

Today is the deadline for the Trump administration to deliver a report to the Senate on its findings in the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On Thursday, the Committee to Protect Journalists held a press conference in front of the White House to demand accountability for the murder.

On Oct. 10, the chairman and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to President Donald Trump that triggered the Global Magnitsky Act, requiring the administration to respond within 120 days about Khashoggi’s death and subsequent punishment, including possible sanctions. However, the CPJ is not confident there will be a response from the White House.

During Thursday’s news conference, CPJ advocacy director Courtney Radsch said, “The Trump administration has until midnight (Friday) to come to terms with the fact that the world’s outrage on Khashoggi is real and get behind bipartisan efforts for accountability. The U.S. cannot stand passively on this case, and must draw the line and send a united message to Saudi Arabia.’’

More shakeups at ESPN

ESPN insider Charles Woodson is seen at the NFL Pro Bowl football game, Sunday, January 27, 2019, in Orlando, FL. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

NFL analyst Charles Woodson is out at ESPN, according to the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand. (Doesn’t it seem as if Marchand breaks every sports media story these days?) Woodson confirmed the report on Instagram. His primary job at the network was as an analyst on the “Sunday NFL Countdown’’ pregame show.

This could be just the start of a big and much-needed shakeup on “Countdown.’’ It really hasn’t been the same since host Chris Berman left two seasons ago. The blame can’t all be placed on host Sam Ponder, who took over for Berman, or Woodson. The whole cast, which also includes former players Matt Hasselbeck and Randy Moss and ex-coach Rex Ryan, just has never settled into a steady rhythm.

Best in magazines

Finalists for the 2019 Ellies were announced Thursday. That’s the American Society of Magazine Editors’ magazine awards for print and digital media.

There were 67 titles nominated in 22 categories. The New Yorker led all nominations with nine, followed by National Geographic and New York with seven each. The Cut and The New York Times Magazine had five nominations with The Atlantic, The Marshall Project and ProPublica each picking up four.

Here’s the complete list of nominees.

The big category is Feature Writing. And the nominees are:

The winners will be announced during a ceremony in Brooklyn on March 14.

Poynter’s ICYMI headlines:

On Poynter.org

Upcoming training:

Want to get this briefing in your inbox? Sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.