Journalistic Self-Entitlement—A Matter of Ethics?

One week ago today (which is Sunday, April 17) the Times Argus of Barre had a front-page article on embezzlement in the state of Vermont. It carried on for a half page on page 4 and was written by Brent Curtis, a staff writer.

It did not mention a long article seen on Vtdigger.org, an investigative news group edited by Anne Galloway (agalloway@vtdigger.org). It was a very thorough and complete article and a compilation of a dozen of over 100 embezzlements made in Vermont since 2009. The story began in her hometown of Hardwick with an embezzlement of huge proportions ($1.4 million over 10 years by Joyce Bellavance, an employee of the electric department. (Anne Galloway mentioned in the article that her husband is one of the commissioners for Hardwick’s electric utility)

If I were Brent Curtis of the Times Argus, I would have acknowledged Anne Galloway’s investigative reportage, the website www. Vermontdigger.org, and I would have interviewed her and her husband to see how Bellavance could get away with 1.4 million and no one notice. My first thought is that Hardwick residents are being overcharged for their electrical power.

But no, there was no mention in the Times Argus article of who broke this story. This is a lapse of journalistic ethics at the least, or, if Curtis or his editors never knew of the Galloway article, an instance of absurd indifference to research.

Nothing new with the way people are appropriating anything they fancy. It is called self-entitlement. The New York Times had an article on the subject “It’s the Kids! Lock up the China!” was the title of this article, written by Stephanie Rosenbloom, in 2005. It’s been going on for a while. Maybe it all began with Gordon Gekko in 1987.

In the case of journalism, it is not plagiarism so much as idea theft when not attributed. Without attribution, the writer says, “Look at me, I broke this story! I should have a raise!” Or call it resume building on someone else’s work.

This has happened to me. I wrote a story on Arden Magoon, a simple man who lives in Stowe and built telescopes, trained himself in astronomy, and even found a comet. I photographed Arden and wrote an article, which appeared in Vermont Magazine. I sent a few of the photos and an idea of the story to the Stowe Reporter, thinking they might make a short mention of Arden and use the picture. They said thanks and did not run any mention of the article or use photographs. They did six weeks later, sending a reporter out to interview him and displaying a feature story with some pretty bad photos. They never mentioned who broke the story, where it appeared, and they could have used the photos for nothing. Arrogance and thievery, I call it.

In another instance, AP interviewed me about the farming sisters the Lepines, who are in my book Vermont People and Vermont Farm Women. They sent out the story on the national wire as a feature. No attribution to me for the time I spent talking to her, no mention of my books, no use of photos, which I would have let them use. So much for AP.

The biggest theft, though, was the New York Times Sunday Magazine. I had written a few articles for them and, as I had just finished People of the Great Plains, a book I spent three years researching and photographing, I suggested a story on North Dakota as an upbeat story on a state often downtrodden by the press. I sent them a 16-page dummy of the book. They said no thanks. About six weeks later they had a story on North Dakota. They turned it around and said why North Dakota shouldn’t be a state. They assigned a writer (from Vermont! I received some nasty letters from there, for they thought I was the writer), and they sent out a photographer.

The Times story was a potboiler, something thought up around a staff table. They obviously used my dummy and suggestion because the photographer photographed a building in Velva, North Dakota, that was identical to one I took and was in the dummy I sent them.

Now this is theft. I complained to the New York Times ombudsman and there was no reply. I should have sued. I will not ever again make a suggestion to the New York Times. I consider them bent.

If journalists are into ripping off ideas, will they not also fudge their stories? Honesty and accuracy, at least to this journalist, are out of the same nest.

Now back to Anne Galloway and her article on embezzlement. I have been embezzled. I caught the theft and the money was returned (about $8,000). I kept the affair quiet. I shouldn’t have. She did some other bad things. Anytime you catch an embezzler, said my accountant, “Don’t be a fool! Prosecute!).

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