Taking a Page From the Post

When I was a young reporter covering fires and there wasn’t a thought in my head, plagiarism was no more comprehensible than treason. How could I possibly appropriate the language of another reporter and fob it off as my own? Surely I knew and would always know what originated with me and what didn’t. Any violation would have to be willful. And journalism simply isn’t played for stakes high enough to compel such wantonness.

Now plagiarism terrifies me. Genuine ideas will always be as scarce as hen’s teeth, but opinions and wordplay rain down from everywhere. And columnists live or die by them.

Journalism is the business of communication, not fabrication; it’s a process of sorting out and passing on. A columnist who’d rather pass along someone else’s provocative argument than rattle on emptily with none at all doesn’t abuse his position. But the rules of the game insist that any derived argument must be reprocessed. It must acquire the present writer’s voice, the present writer’s proprietary spin. That voice cannot always be summoned. That voice is sometimes exhausted. Nevertheless, when language is passed along intact, writing becomes transcription. And when the language’s origins remain unacknowledged, dissemination becomes appropriation–which to the journalist if not the public is about the worst of journalism’s sins.

The only odd thing about Mark Hornung’s op-ed column in the Sun-Times on March 24 is that 85 percent of it was lifted virtually word for word from a Washington Post editorial that appeared the day before. The editorial sounded like Hornung, it thought like Hornung; Hornung, you might say, wouldn’t have changed a word of it. His farewell column last Friday announcing his resignation does a poor job of explaining what happened, but perhaps that’s because no explanation could have made sense of his disaster. On the one hand, he wrote of “deadline pressures mounting”; on the other, he’d already “notified colleagues I would probably miss filing a column that day” when the Post editorial he would appropriate reached his desk.

So apparently Hornung, driven by a sense of duty, changed his mind and decided to tackle his chosen subject, the balanced budget amendment, after all. “I began typing the editorial into my computer queue as notes,” Hornung would tell his readers last Friday. “I then started to write over and around the notes. Determined to meet deadlines and to attend to other responsibilities, I was not mindful that I was breaking the rules of my craft.”

Hornung did indeed have other responsibilities. Running the editorial department was his main one, and another was representing his paper frequently (and impressively) to outside groups. The column he chose to write on the side might have been one obligation too many. Even so, you have to wonder, how could he not have been mindful of what he was doing? His writing “over and around” amounted to just 12 lines in an 80-line column. Everything else was cribbed. This could not have been simple oversight. It was a profound breakdown of professional discipline.

Which is not to say Hornung took from the Post ideas that in some less coherent form he did not already have. He had, his farewell column explained, “writer’s block.” I take this to mean he had a point of view about the balanced budget amendment (he’d written about it before), but could find nothing fresh to extract from it. Perhaps it was at this point that he read the Post editorial–and gratefully discovered what he believed he’d been thinking all along.

This is a seductive discovery.

In his two years running the Sun-Times’s editorial pages Hornung had made other serious mistakes. Early on he clumsily attemped to cut Vernon Jarrett down to size. Early last year, when Roland Burris appeared before the Sun-Times editorial board to discuss the issues of his campaign for governor and seek the paper’s endorsement, Hornung stunned the room–two people who were present tell me–by blowing up and calling Burris a liar. It was a breach of decorum that could have gotten him fired.

But fortunately for Hornung, and fortunately for the Sun-Times, he survived. Once he’d assembled the editorial board he wanted he led it by inspiration, creating a diverse and brainy group whose pages distinguish the paper. And he managed to stand apart from the glum feuding at the top of the Sun-Times that the ranks there have found so dispiriting. In conversations I’ve had with the paper’s employees he was the one editor consistently well spoken of. He was possibly the one editor whose fall would break hearts.

He knew Chicago and liked being out in it. The one time we had lunch together he spent it enthusiastically pitching the concept of public journalism. This is an idea so old it’s new again; it has to do with newspapers coming down to earth and reconnecting with the civic lives of the cities they do business in. He had a vision of newspapers surviving because they’d make themselves necessary.

Editor Dennis Britton brought Hornung to the paper, and Hornung continued to be perceived as loyal to him. But Hornung probably had the brighter future. Changes are likely to be made soon at the top of the Sun-Times. Managing editor Julia Wallace has been openly looking for another job. Both Britton and executive editor Mark Nadler are believed to be interested in other opportunities. A road up was opening before Hornung, and if you can’t resist your two cents of pop psychology you might wonder how sure he was he wanted to take it.

Hornung was appreciated, and his company enjoyed, not only by his staff but by his bosses’ bosses, men such as David Radler of Hollinger, Inc., Larry Perrotto of American Publishing Company, and troubleshooter Nigel Wade from London. His resignation is a personal calamity, and it maims the Sun-Times.

The Lost Decades

I like to expose the kids to everything. You might have seen our family standing its ground in 1913 as shoes flew through the air inside the Theatre des Champs-Elysees and dowagers tumbled screaming down the aisles toward dancers trying to perform Le sacre du printemps to music drowned out by the bedlam.

Years later we were that small, rapt group oblivious to the mob that fled retching and screaming from Un chien andalou.

It goes without saying that when the most sensational movie since Bunuel’s masterpiece opened, we had center seats. Familiar denunciations rained down. “Your skin will crawl,” wrote the New York Times’s Janet Maslin, and she was merely speaking of the opening credits. “Queasiness is the right response.”

“Curiously sour,” offered the Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum.

“Less I cannot wish you,” hissed Gene Siskel in the Tribune. And his colleague Michael Wilmington was left a shattered man. “There’s even something nightmarish about it,” he railed. “All these bad jokes and vacant sets become almost horrifying, as if the film were on the verge of proving that life itself is a bad joke on a vacant set.”

“Rank idiocy,” decreed New City’s Ray Pride, mourning the absence of “playful symbolic incest.”

Yet some viewers saw deeper. “A sly and witty surprise,” proclaimed Entertainment Weekly. “A relaxed, hit-or-miss eighty-nine-minute skit,” applauded the New Yorker’s Sarah Kerr. “Pretty good,” assayed one of my daughters–I forget which, but she was 11 or 13 or 17–as we departed The Brady Bunch Movie. She was lucky. She wasn’t burdened with historical baggage.

It’s obvious that confronting the 70s presents some critics with insurmountable difficulties. The 70s are the most elusive of eras, and for many of the foremost intellects of our day they never existed at all. The 60s, you see, were the Lestat of decades, the decade that kept rising from the dead. By common consensus the 60s persevered until 1972, when Nixon confounded the counterculture by carrying 49 states. And among the cognoscenti–that is, people who read newspapers and discussed current affairs–the 60s didn’t truly expire until early 1973, when the United States pulled out of Vietnam. But then came Watergate, which gave 60s-philes a lease on life that kept the era going for them until Nixon resigned in the summer of 1974. Even then the 60s didn’t call it quits. The stake that finally pierced its heart was the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975.

A year later Jimmy Carter was elected president, and he was desperately proclaimed the new Kennedy. Of course he wasn’t, but it’s hard to say much else about the Carter years because there’s nothing about them anyone remembers.

In the realm of film the early 70s were a golden era. But what of it? The mother lode that films such as Nashville, Chinatown, and the Godfather movies all worked was the passions of the 60s. Meanwhile the 70s set up shop on a separate, loathsome plane of existence occupied by second-raters too vacuous or exhausted or just plain young to stick with the 60s to the bitter end. Smart people ridiculed the 70s as they were happening. Don’t expect comprehension when they return as nostalgia.

News Bites

An elegant splitting of differences has brought Jay Mariotti back to the Sun-Times. He wanted to return as a sports columnist or not at all. The paper wanted to teach him a lesson and bust him to reporter. Solution: after four months in the wilderness Mariotti showed up last Sunday with a byline that read “By Jay Mariotti” followed by, in tiny letters, “sports columnist.”

But his piece on Michael Jordan wasn’t a column. And it ended with the tag “Columnist Jay Mariotti is on special assignment.” Meaning, he’s our columnist but he won’t be writing columns.

When did it occur to Jerry Reinsdorf–and at some point it must have–that by refusing to give an inch to settle the baseball strike he might be driving Michael Jordan back to basketball?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.