Broder Against Broder

In a tumultuous setting like the Middle East, reporters give us truth as they understand it. Truth comes in fragments, and from various perceptions, our idea of the reality is constructed. When a reporter presents as evidence of his own eyes and ears what is merely the echo of another’s, he commits a professional sin.

Jonathan Broder, a superb foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, lost his job two weeks ago because he had appropriated another man’s experiences. More precisely, he appropriated another man’s language to describe the sort of experiences every reporter on the West Bank has been having. “Where violence is a way of life,” a color piece by Broder that ran in the Tribune on February 22, was marbeled with events and images from a story by Joel Greenberg, “Notes from an uprising,” that had appeared ten days earlier in the Jerusalem Post.

Where Greenberg began his article: “Anyone travelling the roads of the West Bank these days cannot fail to sense the change that has come over the area in the last two months. The region radiates chaos, a sense of anarchy and violence which makes life before December seem like a distant vision.”

Broder began his: “Anyone traveling the roads of the West Bank these days cannot fail to notice the fundamental change that has overtaken the area in the last 10 weeks.”

And his second paragraph began: “The West Bank radiates a sense of chaos that makes life before December 9, when the Arab population was more docile, seem like a distant memory.”

Where Greenberg’s second paragraph began: “There is a war going on here which has taken an ugly turn, no longer hidden by a facade of ‘normal life’ and daily routine. The conflict is raw now, on the surface.”

Broder’s second paragraph continued: “If the struggle between Jews and Palestinians then was conducted behind the facade of normal life and daily routine, now it is in the open, raw and personal.”

Greenberg’s article was reprinted in the weekly International Post of February 20 and read there by a Chicago subscriber who also reads the Tribune. She wrote the Tribune pointing out the borrowed language. Broder, who was on leave, had stopped by the Tower a day or two earlier to discuss his next assignment–the State Department. Then he went home to California, which is where Jim Squires called him. Broder could not explain what he had done. Had he and Greenberg been traveling together, sharing sensations, so immersed in a common experience that Broder forgot Greenberg’s language was not also his? Broder did not claim that. In agony over how to handle the matter, Squires ultimately asked Broder to resign.

Broder’s friends overseas, canvassed by Eleanor Randolph of the Washington Post for an article about the incident, came to his defense. One said Broder had received capital punishment for a parking violation. Another said there was nothing to it–everyone in Jerusalem rewrites the Post. Someone supposed he’d made a careless mistake in his eagerness to clear his desk and go home.

But to the senior editors in the Tower, Broder’s error was catastrophic.

“We had to consider what this means to Jonathan Broder’s credibility as a correspondent in the world,” Jim Squires told us. “If we could rehabilitate Jonathan Broder in some way we would. We all wanted to keep Jonathan Broder. But how do you rehabilitate a terrific 35-year-old correspondent? Put him on the copy desk? We all started out saying, how do we save Jonathan Broder? And the answer is, you don’t.”

The line that Broder crossed over is not easy to locate. Often the misimpression a reporter gives is trivial. Last month, for instance, Steve Neal of the Sun-Times described a debate between Aurelia Pucinski and Jane Byrne that he did not attend. From reading his column you’d have supposed he did, although Neal never said that: verisimilitude is an effect reporters take pride in being able to fabricate. In fact, Neal heard the debate on the radio. His column was accurate enough; no harm was done.

Even plagiarism to the degree committed by Broder is not always a firable offense. “I guess it’s how it relates to the level of the story and how it relates to the integrity of the newspaper,” Squires said. “If it’s a brand-new kid and a story of not much consequence–say, it’s a rewrite of a flood out of the clips, or City News Bureau on a wreck on the Kennedy–you just chew that kid’s ass, run him out of the building for a while [suspend him], and watch him until he learns the rules.”

But Jonathan Broder had been working a beat that Squires calls the most important in the world. Every line he wrote was carefully read, and as he wrote what he saw, which was Israel stumbling toward chaos, protest rained on the paper. “A lot of people in the Jewish community were calling for his head,” a member of the Tribune editorial board told us. “A good deal of mail was coming in accusing him of bias.”

We supposed the Tribune had screened Broder from this intense reaction to his coverage. Why add to his burdens? “You can’t screen him from it in the country where he is,” Squires said. “If the Israelis complain to Broder as much as they complain to me about Broder, he isn’t screened.”

Squires recalled a dinner he’d spent sitting by Georgiy Arbatov, the powerful director of the Soviet Union’s Institute of U.S. and Canadian Affairs. “He started attacking Jonathan Broder’s work with considerable skill,” Squires said. “He knew Broder’s Afghani coverage was devastating to the Soviets around the world.”

The Tribune stood by its reporter. But now Broder had compromised his own integrity.

Broder has not discussed this episode publicly. He has told his friends simply that he made a mistake. We asked Squires why he thinks Broder made it.

“He doesn’t know and I don’t know and no one else knows,” Squires said. “He cannot give you an explanation for that. The explanation he comes out with is that it’s almost an unconscious thing. You have before you a myriad of clips, notes, rewrites . . .”

We know. You are exhausted and your desk is covered with bits of paper and you are not sure any longer what anything means or where anything came from.

“It’s my feeling he just worked the story too close and too hard,” Squires said. “He was driven by it and it was an aberration. But it was an aberration of considerable magnitude.

“If you read Jonathan Broder in 1987 he told you all year long that what was going to happen in December would happen,” Squires told us. “He did a wonderful job for Tribune readers. As you notice, we didn’t apologize in our little deal [the Tribune’s brief announcement of Broder’s error and resignation]. The reason why is that Jonathan Broder brought so much to that story we didn’t want to apologize for his work. Because he was terrific.”

For the Editor Who Dares to Be Different

Ken Towers, executive editor

Chicago Sun-Times

Dear Mr. Towers:

Congratulations! Your six-day series on the love letters of John Wayne Gacy was journalism at its finest. Sure, people will always disagree over whether to view Mr. Gacy as the heartless killer of 33 young men or just a victim of circumstance. The important thing was how you brought the issue of serial murder out into the open, so everyone can debate the pros and cons. That’s how we do things in America.

I represent Richard Speck. Over the years Mr. Speck has written some darned interesting letters of his own. And I’m sure you’ll be just as excited as I was to learn that Mr. Speck is now eager to place this correspondence before the public.

I bet you’re asking yourself, how do we get our hands on such a treasure? I have good news, Mr. Towers. It’s as simple as signing up now as a charter subscriber to the new press syndicate we’re calling the Slammer Group. If you act today, I can guarantee you exclusive Chicago-area rights to the wit and philosophy of Illinois’ most celebrated felons.

What a wealth of material this promises to be! I am speaking not merely of mash notes to lonely women but to mothers, cons in the next tier, and even, in one absolutely fascinating series of postcards, to a long-dead cocker spaniel.

Frankly, most newspapers are run by timid men who’ll be skittish about airing the cell-block musings of offbeat personalities like Jeff Fort and Patty Columbo. Most but not all, Mr. Towers. Thank God the Sun-Times is not afraid to publish just about anything!

Let me make one additional point. My stable of authors, most of whom face life sentences or the electric chair, write for the sheer joy of self-expression. Which is to say they come remarkably cheap. Mr. Towers, an employee who understands his copy can be replaced at a moment’s notice by the blatherings of a psychopath is a docile employee. Bear that in mind.

Our rate card is enclosed.

Yours sincerely,

Archibald Fist

Literary agent