Make room, Mel Gibson. The Patriot is no longer the only Revolutionary War drama playing this summer. A column about the Declaration of Independence in a Boston newspaper has resulted in a battle to save the job of a conservative syndicated columnist.
That battle continued Monday when editors at the Boston Globe came under fire for issuing a career-threatening four-month suspension to Jeff Jacoby for "serious journalistic misconduct" stemming from his July 3 column.
"They've done a great injustice by smearing him," declared Roger Arnoff, a media analyst at Accuracy in Media, a watchdog group that monitors press organizations. "It certainly looks like a case of media bias," Mr. Arnoff added, alluding to the fact that the Globe, despite a daily readership of 1.4 million that makes it New England's largest newspaper, has no other conservative columnists on its staff.
The controversy surrounding Mr. Jacoby began when the columnist submitted a piece that highlighted the courage and sacrifices made by those who signed the Declaration of Independence.
According to Jacoby, the piece was inspired by other similar commentaries – by Rush Limbaugh, Paul Harvey and an anonymous author -- that have been making the rounds in cyberspace, via e-mail.
The anonymous commentary, though popular on the Internet, had been alleged to contain inaccuracies. Jacoby tried to set the record straight by checking the facts and writing his own account of the oft-told tale.
Prior to the Fourth of July, Jacoby e-mailed copies of his column to friends and fans – including to the editors of FrontPageMagazine.com -- with the following note attached:
"Please note: This is NOT a mere rewrite of an anonymous piece that has been making the rounds on the Internet. That one is well-meant, but much of it isn't actually true. What follows should stand up to scrutiny. Have a great Fourth of July. – JJ"
Jacoby's editors contended that his piece was too similar to the other accounts of the signing of the Declaration that had inspired it. The Globe denied him the opportunity to clarify his sources through a printed correction. Instead, they handed down the suspension late Friday afternoon.
In a statement issued Monday morning, Jacoby defended his position. "Since I was relating lore that has been related over and over, and since all of the sources I had relied on had relied on even earlier recitations, I assumed that all the material in my column was in the public domain. It never occurred to me to include a line pointing out that I was far from the first to write about the fates of the Declaration's signers. Had I added such a line, Globe officials tell me, none of this would be happening."
Editors at the Globe stopped short of accusing Mr. Jacoby of plagiarism. Nonetheless, Globe Publisher Richard Gilman told the Associated Press that "We cannot look the other way if any of our columnists, reporters, or writers borrow from the works of others, even in an attempt to improve upon it."
Commentators widely denounced this view as iron-fisted. Matt Drudge, creator of The Drudge Report, protested the move on Monday by disconnecting all the links from his web site to the Globe, declaring, "The Boston Globe has been suspended." A growing number of posters on the popular conservative message board Freerepublic.com are likewise declaring their intention to boycott the Globe.
Village Voice columnist and acclaimed free-speech champion Nat Hentoff also came to Mr. Jacoby's defense. Mr. Hentoff told FrontPageMagazine.com that "Jeff's a very valuable guy who provides good analysis. He would have been wiser to give at least one citation, but I don't think it was plagiarism." Mr. Hentoff added, "I've never known anything to doubt about his integrity."
Not surprisingly, the ideological left has been considerably harsher in its judgments of Mr. Jacoby. Steve Rendall, Senior Analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a left-leaning New York-based watchdog group, stated that Mr. Jacoby's actions constituted a "breach of journalistic ethics."
During the interview with FrontPageMagazine.com, Rendall offered scathing criticism of Mr. Jacoby's political views. Even he had to concede, however, that Jacoby's actions were "not as serious as plagiarism or making up facts."
Despite supporting the Globe's actions with respect to Mr. Jacoby, Mr. Rendall nonetheless criticized the newspaper's past handling of plagiarism. "Mike Barnicle was coddled because he was such a big draw," Mr. Rendall suggested.
Mr. Rendall referred to one of two high-profile plagiarism cases to rock the Globe in 1998. That year, columnist Mike Barnicle resigned after the Globe issued a two-month suspension when the paper learned that he had improperly used material from a book by comedian George Carlin. In June of that year, the Globe's Patricia Smith resigned in disgrace after admitting that she had fabricated quotations and characters. The paper's controversial handling of the Jacoby affair is sure to further diminish its twice-tarnished reputation outside New England.
In the press statement he issued Monday, Mr. Jacoby states that, in addition to suspending him without pay, his superiors at The Globe "effectively invited" him to resign. He also said: "I was put on notice that if I do choose to return in four months, there would have to be a "serious rethink" of the kind of column I write."
At press time, Boston Globe Editorial Page Editor Renee Loth had not returned a phone call from Front Page Magazine.com requesting an interview.
"What is happening now is a nightmare," says Jacoby in his statement. "In accusing me of `serious journalistic misconduct,' The Globe is poisoning the good name I have spent years building up. … I am deeply concerned about my family's future, of course. And I am deeply concerned about my reputation….I thought my future at the paper was limitless. It has been shocking and traumatic to discover how wrong I was."
Despite Mr. Jacoby's anxiety about his future, he continues to enjoy widespread support from fans and colleagues. Even the leftwing Mr. Rendall had to concede that this situation "shouldn't be a career-ending thing."