Plagiarism is journalism’s sin of sins, but not its crime of crimes. In court it’s a copyright violation, if that. Wendell Hutson is steaming mad because somebody else signed his work. Hutson’s gunning for legal satisfaction, but don’t count on him getting any.

He used to write for the Illinois Real Estate Journal, a biweekly newspaper owned by the Law Bulletin Publishing Company in Chicago. Almost two years ago he reported on a $21 million development in Alton, Illinois. His saga began: “Twenty years after an Alton manufacturing plant closed its doors, the downtown site is now being developed into a potential 1 million square foot mixed-use business park with the potential for 1 million square feet.”

Now there’s a lead in desperate need of a copy editor.

Last November Hutson was fired from IREJ–“I was a vocal complainer,” he allows–and he began freelancing for a living. He tells me a recent assignment led him back to a source for the Alton story, and this source said it was a funny thing but a story in the latest issue of the IREJ looked an awful lot like the one Hutson had written in August 2000. Hutson got himself a copy of the issue, and to his eye the two stories were virtually identical.

In the May 20, 2002, Illinois Real Estate Journal he found a roundup of Illinois business park developments. The segment labeled “Alton” began: “Twenty years after an Alton manufacturing plant closed its doors, the downtown site is now being developed into a potential 1 million square foot mixed-use business park with the potential for 1 million square feet.”

The second time around, and that lead still hadn’t been fixed! But to be fair, the occasional “will be” later in the story became a “was,” and Hutson’s original was trimmed by more than half. The entire roundup appeared under the byline of managing editor Brian Sutton. “That’s plagiarism,” said Hutson. “If you take something I wrote and put your name on it, that’s plagiarism.”

He called publisher Michael Kramer and protested. Kramer said IREJ would run a note in a forthcoming issue, something Hutson described to me as a “correction” and Kramer as a “clarification.” Finding Kramer insufficiently remorseful, Hutson warned him he intended to find a lawyer.

“He said any legal action would be a waste of my time,” Hutson told me.

Kramer might be right. Hutson wrote the original piece as a salaried employee, which means the copyright presumably belongs to the company. “How can you plagiarize something you own the rights to?” Kramer wants to know. “Don’t all newspapers use archival information?” He concedes that there should have been a note telling readers the survey was compiled from old IREJ stories, but if there wasn’t, so what? “At the last minute in the production process, things slip through the cracks. I don’t think we did anything wrong.”

As for Sutton, his conscience is clear. “I personally edited and wrote some of the information in the article,” he says. “I know I added that lead.”

Given the lead it’s hard to imagine anybody fighting over it, but Hutson insisted he was the author. “I can get that article now and I can go through for a fact what he put in there. It might have been five or six words. He mentioned that Alton is like 20 miles from Saint Louis, but that’s the only contribution he made.

“The article belongs to the Law Bulletin. They have the right to reprint the article. But they can’t reprint it and put someone else’s name on it.”

But what’s the crime?

He wasn’t sure. “Fraud?”

Is the public defrauded when it reads a Wendell Hutson story under the impression it’s a Brian Sutton story? Hutson saw a lawyer who came up with a new theory.

“Emotional distress,” said Hutson. “Beyond that, he’s looking into it to see if there are some other legal areas. But definitely the emotional distress of opening up a paper to see your story with someone else’s name on it.”

I asked him to describe the distress.

“I was shocked. I was amazed. You take pride in your work and to see someone else pass it off as their own work is damaging. I felt betrayed. This was someone I used to work with.”

If Hutson sues, we’ll see how far his anguish gets him. Some behavior is tacky, amateurish, even inexcusable–and unsuited for litigation. IREJ’s appropriation of Hutson’s Alton story could turn out to be an example. He was smart to call a moralizing media critic as well as an attorney.

News Bites

A journalist here in our city might hold the president’s dignity in his hands. Sun-Times columnist Zay Smith noted the other day that George W. Bush recently said this in Des Moines:

“I remember–I remember campaigning in Chicago, and one of the reporters said, would you ever deficit spend? I said only–only in times of war, in times of economic insecurity as a result of a recession or in times of national emergency. Never did I dream we’d have a trifecta.”

Smith, with his own ax to grind, commented, “Why does he keep forgetting to mention the $1.3 trillion tax cut?”

The problem the New Republic has with Bush’s tale isn’t with what he forgets but what he remembers. The New Republic is pretty sure Bush remembers something that never happened, and it’s been dogging him about it for months. There’s “no record of him ever listing these exceptions,” the New Republic commented in its June 3 issue, and the White House “has never responded to requests from tnr or other media outlets to provide corroboration.” The magazine observed that last August the extenuating circumstances Bush was claiming to have hedged his promise against were limited to war and recession; but then September 11 happened and Bush added national emergency.

“In the last couple of months, he’s added more detail to this account,” the magazine went on. “Now, as Bush tells it in his speeches, he made the promise ‘in Chicago.’ He says he was asked if he would ever run a deficit by ‘a reporter,’ although at various points he has identified the questioner as ‘a fellow,’ ‘some guy,’ ‘they,’ ‘somebody,’ and ‘the guy.'”

In troubled times, the New Republic is putting in doubt our president’s word and grip on reality. If the conversation Bush is getting so much mileage out of and the magazine is so skeptical about did take place in Chicago, one of our indigenous reporters was likely involved. Speak up, sir, and clear the air.

The Sun-Times published a remarkable editorial this past Monday explaining why it passed on to the cops a videotape that allegedly showed singer R. Kelly having sex with a 14-year-old girl. The paper was responding to a piece by Chicago’s Steve Rhodes that appeared on the magazine’s Web site. Various “experts in media ethics” rounded up by Rhodes had questioned the Sun-Times’s action in light of the media’s enduring fear of becoming–or even appearing to become–“an arm of law enforcement.”

Toward the end of the Sun-Times’s long rebuttal an unfortunate sentence appeared: “At one level, this muddled thinking is pretty standard stuff among those called, for obvious reasons, the ‘media elite.'”

I have no idea who this media elite is supposed to be. (The Sun-Times can’t possibly think that the media ethicist from the University of Minnesota Rhodes quoted belongs to it.) I can’t tell you what those “obvious reasons” are. I don’t understand why ideas that the paper just found crisp and coherent enough to argue with are now deemed “muddled.” But once again the Sun-Times–Lord Black of Crossharbour, proprietor–has made it clear that when it wishes to demonstrate it’s the paper written by and for Chicago’s commoners, contempt is a favorite tool.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a help-wanted ad placed by the Times newspaper of Munster, Indiana, for an investigative reporter who’d cover corruption in the county government. The ad had prompted a modest on-line debate among some University of Missouri journalism graduates who wondered whether this was a case of an editor deciding what he wanted the story to be before anyone reported it. I thought the debate showed how little anyone knows about Lake County, Indiana–including, unfortunately, readers of the Sun-Times and Tribune.

As the Times editor who placed the ad insisted, corruption in Lake County is world-class. Just the other day a nine-count federal indictment was unsealed that accused county auditor Peter Benjamin of bank fraud, bribery, fraudulent billing, and abetting prostitution. Also indicted was Lake County councilman Troy Montgomery, accused of taking bribes from Benjamin in return for throwing Benjamin’s law firm county business.

Meanwhile, Gary’s city clerk, Katie Hall, and her daughter, chief deputy clerk Junifer Hall, were pleading not guilty in federal court to 22 charges of racketeering, extortion, and mail fraud. The Halls have been accused of funneling money squeezed out of county employees into a so-called Friends of Katie Hall campaign fund that was used for personal purposes, and also of perpetrating a ghost-payrolling scheme to benefit another daughter, Jacqueline Hall.

My computer search tells me that, as usual, Chicago dailies ignored the yeasty doings of the metro area’s eastern salient. Out of state, out of mind.

Paige Smoron married Channel 32 producer Jim Wiser on May 18 and two days later the byline of Paige Wiser appeared in the Sun-Times for the first time.

Once I’d figured out who the new writer was, I wondered why I’d missed the story where she shared the personal crisis with her readers, the one where she pondered the eternal question What’s in a name? and explained why her career and reputation gave her no good reason not to honor the man she loved. It turned out I missed it because she didn’t write it. Aside from an allusion in a column under her new name to being “older and Wiser” now, she simply showed up one day as someone else.

A couple years earlier she’d considered reinventing herself as Paige Bouvier–“I thought that flowed really nicely”–but was put off by the paperwork. So when another opportunity came along to change her name she took it and seemed surprised that I wondered why. “You’re thinking about it more than I did.”

Yes, I was. I was remembering an era when changing a byline was something no woman did lightly. It was a major political act and a drama played out over many months. This was back in the 70s, and of course we’re talking about women leaving their husbands.

One was Camille Stagg. At 22 she married, and at 23 the Sun-Times hired her as Camille Jilke to be a food writer. At 29 she divorced.

She remembers. “I was going through the agony of ‘What do I call myself? Do I call myself Stagg, or what?’ I even thought of selecting a name, like a writer’s name. I was thinking that my first name being French, I probably should have a French name.” As her middle name is Janet, she contemplated a life as Camille Genet.

“I didn’t do an abrupt change,” says Stagg. “I think people have to get used to the fact of who you are. I wrote under Camille Jilke for years and as Camille Jilke Stagg for maybe six months or a year, and then I dropped the Jilke.” Later she remarried and faced another choice. “Bradford is a very famous Bostonian name,” she tells me, and he was from Boston.

But she wasn’t. And in Chicago, where she worked, the Bradford name and a dollar fifty would get her a ride on the CTA. She decided to stand pat.

To give readers an idea what a big deal something is, reporters love to come up with a number. Often this number is presented as a responsible calculation when it’s actually a flight of fancy. As the World Cup got under way, the Chicago Tribune ran a piece that said this: “The odd starting times presents a predicament for English businesses, as evidenced by a recent Barclaycard survey that estimated that 40 percent of the nation’s soccer fans will be skiving off work in order to watch England and Ireland matches. The survey also estimated that such wide-scale skiving will cost the England economy as much as $5 billion.”

Five billion dollars! Or as Barclaycard reported at home, 3.2 billion pounds. I E-mailed Barclaycard and asked about the survey’s margin of error. As it turned out that the methodology consisted of posting the question on Barclaycard’s soccer Web site and the sampling was therefore totally self-selected, I suspected the margin of error might range to somewhere around 80 or 90 percent. “We did not include any error margin,” a spokesman responded, “as it was positioned as a lighthearted piece.”

If you’re wondering, $5 billion is about 0.3 percent of the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product. So it’s a piece of lost change just big enough to miss–if we accept the premise that every empty desk and lathe is sand thrown into the economic gears, and ignore the premiums paid by advertisers on the telly, and pay no attention to the impact the euphoria of victory (or desperation of defeat) might have on consumerism, and therefore swallow the assumption that England will actually lose it. To Barclaycard the five billion’s a lark, to the American press a great big number that gives us an idea.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.