December 15, 2017
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Columbia Journalism Review Failed Basic Standards of Journalism

By Chris Theodore

I believe that CJR has failed to maintain ethical standards of journalism as a result of keeping online an article which was put together by a reporter who failed basic, routine journalism practice through multiple false and misleading statements she makes, flagrant omissions throughout her article, and through her failure to do rudimentary reporting.  These failures I have enumerated and described not only in this post but elsewhere, including in at least two dozen emails or telephone calls from me to staff of CJR and faculty members of the Columbia Journalism School since 2012.

The following information lists some of the specific passages from Ms. Fry's article and a brief analysis which enables people to judge for themselves whether or not CJR failed basic standards of journalism.

"Though Reader founder Chris Theodore says his magazine is ten years old, only issues from 2008 on are available on its website.” 

At the time of her article, The Reader Magazine was ten years old, a fact Ms. Fry could have determined in 30 minutes of actual reporting.  Instead of doing this work, she used the opportunity created by her own failure to do basic research to cast doubt on my character, an underhanded and flagrant violation of journalism standards.  How many readers concluded that I’m a liar as a result of her statement?  What percentage is OK?   The truth was discoverable-- The Reader was 10 years old at the the time she wrote this. That Ms. Fry does not bother to do the work necessary to tell her audience the actual age of our publication is indicative that telling the truth here and elsewhere was not her aim.  Her aim was to concoct feelings within her readers of disgust and suspicion by creating negative characterizations.  To leave an article with this in it online, year after year, when it is clear that the article has a role in the defining of a person, is a failure of journalism standards.  

"From a search of the magazine’s back issues, Reader appears to be a usually 32-page publication of advertisements—tailored to four neighborhoods in San Bernardino County—and content it seems to take from almost anywhere and then claims as its own.” 

This is a false and unsubstantiated statement.  She describes The Reader as a publication with 'content it seems to take from anywhere and claim as its own'.  She provides no data to back up her claim which would not be possible since the truth contradicts her statement.  In fact, in the majority of issues of The Reader Magazine articles are either original or used with permission and attributed properly.  Here Ms. Fry makes a false statement, presents no substantive evidence and moves on, leaving her reader with an inaccurate and negative perception.  At what point do her false statements actually matter enough to equal a “monumental failure”? Was it not her responsibility to provide the data and substance, rather than the sweeping, false statement? 

"Plagiarism is its bold, bald business model —and it has been this way since at least 2008." 

Ms. Fry, who couldn’t be bothered to find out when our publication started, states "plagiarism" is our business model.  On what basis?  Her half-dozen interviews with people whose work was all correctly attributed to them?  A media business model has media consumers, advertisers and content providers.  She conducted no interview with an advertiser.  No interview with a reader.  No interview with a contributing writer but nonetheless, Ms. Fry makes a disparaging assertion and presents it as fact, although the assertion is false.  Ms. Fry did not even attempt to substantiate it through a data-driven analysis, which is negligent given the enormous potential injuriousness of her allegation.  Did she not have an obligation to include actual data rather than a cherry-picked assortment of interviews for her to claim our entire business model is plagiarism?  At what point does a journalist’s unsubstantiated claims— that are injurious-- amount to a monumental failure? Because if this isn’t it, I’d actually like to know.  

"Yet far more egregious than these instances in which Reader lifted a single article, is its latest issue in which it borrowed almost all of its content from the Seattle-based Yes! magazine.”

Ms. Fry spends 529 words (or about 1/5th of the entire article) on our use of Yes! content.   Did she not fail basic, even routine journalism practice when she failed to inform her reader that all of Yes! Magazine content The Reader used was designated as “Creative Commons”?   Here, Ms. Fry attempts to imply that we have plagiarized from Yes! Magazine (using words like lift and borrowed) when in truth 1) we stated at the beginning of the issue that the content came from Yes!, 2) we attributed every article to its author; 3) we reprinted the content after having read at the Yes! Magazine website the following words: "We want you to pass along the work of YES! Magazine”, and “You are free to use any graphics or illustrations marked as ‘YES! Magazine Graphic’…”  Twenty-six words which would unquestionably change a readers’ perception— were left out, which is a failure of basic reporting.   

"Doug Pibel, Yes!’s managing editor, says that Reader lifted at least 11 pieces—including the “Purple America” cover art and feature—from multiple issues of Yes! and its online content. He notes that all Yes! branding was stripped and replaced by the Reader equivalent— “a Yes! magazine take on what Americans want” became “a Reader Magazine take on what Americans want.” 

It is likely, given the tone that Ms. Fry adopts everywhere in this article, that Mr. Pibel never said the words, "Reader lifted at least 11 pieces", which Ms. Fry nevertheless states he "says". Ms. Fry uses the term “lifted", language associated with a thief to damage my reputation and define me as a thief— despite Yes! Magazine's own policies and encouragement that others “pass along" their content.

"(Even so, this one- sided collaboration appears to be the only instance in which Reader’s founder, Theodore, has sort of credited a source publication.)"

This is a false and unsubstantiated statement.  Apparently if things appear to be so to Ms. Fry, they deserve to be in print, stated as fact, in black and white.  Incredible: no data, no analysis, just a statement that must have “felt right”to Ms. Fry.  Screw who it may hurt.   

"Pibel has found an attorney to represent the magazine pro bono and draw up a cease and desist letter. “We want people to reprint our stuff, we just want to have credit for it and maybe a link to our website when they do,” he says. "

Ms. Fry has attempted to imply The Reader has "lifted" (stolen) from Yes! Magazine, but Pibel states here they want people to reprint their stuff-- just give credit-- precisely what The Reader Magazine did. The problem is that Ms. Fry downplays the fact that The Reader used Yes! Magazine content according to Yes! Magazine’s own stated policy, emphasizes details that are clearly less important than this, and if that wasn’t enough confuses the reader through repeated use of language such as that The Reader has "lifted" content from Yes! Magazine, even when Pibel's own words counter this mischaracterization.  

“But I think it goes far beyond that to take an interview and substitute your name as interviewer. The level of audacity involved there—I don’t even know how you would even think of doing that.”

How appropriate and ethical is it that Ms. Fry prepared her interview subject by sharing with him details of her story about our magazine, which Mr. Pibel then comments on, and then she includes here which are out of context?