Journalism has seen its share of scandal the past few years. Most notably, Jayson Blair of The New York Times plagiarized other journalists' work and was even making stuff up. So newspapers around the country rushed to assure readers that they had "safeguards" in place, as Seattle Times executive editor Mike Fancher wrote last year, to ensure it wouldn't happen to them. Fancher was honest, though, about the limitations of preventing fraud: "[N]o editor in the country should be foolish enough to say, 'It couldn't happen in my newsroom.'"
As he wrote those words in May 2003, a rat was afoot at The Seattle Times. The rodent in question was associate editor and business columnist Stephen Dunphy, who had been at the paper since 1967. What he did wasn't deceit along the lines of Blair. It was journalistic dementia.
In late July this year, Fancher says, the Times received an e-mail from a reader, alerting the paper to a 1997 Dunphy article which lifted seven paragraphs from an earlier Journal of Commerce story. The Times checked into it and found the claim to be true. It was an alarming discovery because the veteran reporter, who twice served as business editor, had already copped to pinching material in a 2000 article, in that case from a book by essayist Barry Lopez. Back in 2000, Dunphy made a contrite confession and got a warning letter placed in his personnel file: One more transgression and you are gone. "Everyone who looked at that felt so clearly that it was a one-time mistake," Fancher says of the Lopez incident. Discovery of another case of theft was devastating.
On Aug. 15, the Times published a correction regarding Dunphy's 1997 article. Correcting a fact here or a sentence there is common in journalism. Confessing to seven swiped paragraphs is not, as many Times staffers knew when they read the correction. The big question then became: Had Dunphy committed other sins?
Inside the Times newsroom, sources say, word got around that management wasn't investigating further (although it was). That didn't sit well with many. On Aug. 18, David Heath, an investigative reporter, conducted a database search using text from Dunphy's work and quickly found other examples in which he had lifted passages from other publications. His findings went up the Times chain of command. On Aug. 20, Dunphy resigned from the paper where he'd worked for 37 years. "I took careless shortcuts that in the end constituted plagiarism," he told Seattle Weekly via e-mail, declining to be interviewed.
In his weekly Sunday column on Aug. 22, Fancher reported the news. He identified five instances in which Dunphy had misappropriated text. There was shock in the Times newsroom the next morning. Dunphy was considered a nice guy, a proto-typical workhorse, one of the last people anyone would suspect of plagiarism.
As it turns out, Dunphy has plagiarized the work of others at least nine times, based on a limited analysis by Seattle Weekly. For a 2003 article on China, for example, he swiped nine paragraphs from a 1985 Washington Post article. He thieved from The New York Times as well, though apparently never from Blair. The Seattle Times, says Fancher, is completing its own investigation of Dunphy's work but won't confirm how many articles are in question for a couple of weeks. The paper plans to publish a full accounting and make appropriate corrections on its Web site.
Why would an experienced reporter do such a thing? For journalists, pinching text is a sin against nature. The initial theory was that, facing what Dunphy characterized as an overwhelming workload, he looked up background for stories on the Internet, copied relevant blocks of text into his notes, and inadvertently transferred them into his articles. It's too kind by half to accept that explanation — that he was somehow blindly saluting the deadline flag and lazily copying background text into his articles. In the case of the 2003 article, for example, Dunphy altered verb tenses from the Post's text and then took much of the remaining text verbatim. That's clear evidence of conscious intent. Asked about that, Fancher admits things are a bit more rotten than they first appeared when Dunphy resigned. "I agree with your observation that what we're seeing goes beyond Steve's explanation of how this happened," Fancher said in an e-mail.
How does a newspaper keep this from happening again? Don't newspapers have dozens of fact checkers eyeballing every inch of text? "Everything we do is built on the assumption that people are honorable and honest," says Fancher. "If we assumed the opposite, we'd never get the paper out."