The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, December 19, 2002  

Los Angeles Times Columnist Smears The Rittenhouse Review
The Blog That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Hey, I made the Los Angeles Times today!

No, I'm not in the news section, I'm on the op-ed page. No, I didn't write an article, I was mentioned in one. No, not by name, merely in a cowardly veiled reference. And not by anyone of any significance, just Norah Vincent.

In her usually-Thursdays column, this week entitled "Putting the Brakes on 'Blowhard Bloggers'," Vincent's ostensible topic is free speech and the web, as she discusses, at least in passing, a recent libel case in which a court ruled Dow Jones & Co., the parent company of The Wall Street Journal and Barron's, can be sued for damages in Australia under Australian libel law. After first overstating the significance of the case, she quickly moves to her true agenda: "It's all about me!"

For those of you who missed out the first time around, Vincent since August has been in a froth over an incident in which she claims "another blogger" accused her of plagiarism and, indeed, "libel."

As Vincent writes in today's Times:

In the major media world, editors and fact-checkers try to catch inaccuracies, excise lies and slanders and print corrections and retractions for mistakes that slip into print. But few bloggers follow this protocol. What they say, however outrageous or unfounded, tends to stick.

Full disclosure: This happened to me when I integrated four words from a Jackson Browne song into a piece I posted on my blog. Another blogger accused me of plagiarism, and the unmerited charge spread across the Web at frightening speed.

"Another blogger," as Vincent employs the phrase here, refers to me and to this site, The Rittenhouse Review, and probably to others, also unnamed, as well.

One wouldn't know that by reading Vincent's column. Nor would one know it by reading the initial defense Vincent published on her defunct weblog, Norah's BlogJam, on September 3, nor the second defense published there on September 4. For whatever reason, Vincent has chosen not to reveal the name of her purported accuser(s). I presume she thinks doing so will put her in the untoward position of assisting me/us in "trolling for hits" from someone so established and respected as she believes herself to be, a ludicrous and self-aggrandizing presumption upon which Vincent has relied in the past.

However, I can't help but wonder if the reason she refuses to name me or this weblog is because doing so would enable readers -- and perhaps her editors as well -- to review the facts of the matter. Instead, the self-styled renegade, the oh-so-put-upon Vincent takes to the pages of the Los Angeles Times of all places to smear my name and reputation using words and phrases like "blowhard," "any old varmint," "pipsqueak," "careless," "mad" [Ed: Angry?], "vengeful," and "half-wits." (I suppose all of this makes The Rittenhouse Review the Blog That Dare Not Speak Its Name.)

What we have here is Vincent accusing another writer of having accused her of plagiarism, and supposedly libeling her in the process, a charge from which she has defended herself repeatedly and vociferously, and now from the pages of the Los Angeles Times, while at the same time refusing, or at the very least declining, to identify publicly her alleged accuser(s). One would think a writer so outraged would have the courage and conviction to name the offending party. Instead, Vincent's posture is one of, "I was libeled. I won't tell you by whom. Just take my word."

She cannot have it both ways.

Regardless, the vaunted superiority Vincent today claims on behalf of the traditional print media's editors and fact-checkers for catching and correcting errors obviously doesn't apply to her and the Times. Her piece is tendentious, misleading, and dishonest. It's clever, though, the manner in which she attempts to use the traditional media's alleged superiority to her advantage. It goes like this: A blogger I will not name said something mean about me. I wrote in the L.A. Times that it's not true. The L.A. Times has editors and fact-checkers to make certain errors are corrected. Therefore, what is said about this matter in the L.A. Times must be true. End of story.

I don't think so.

The public record

Let's step back in time and review the public record. At The Rittenhouse Review on August 28 I published a piece entitled, "Norah Vincent: Tracing Noonan's Footsteps." In that article I criticized a post on Norah's BlogJam, published on August 28, a piece she described as a manuscript of hers that was rejected by the editors of the New York Sun.

I can no longer remember what her scribblings were supposed to be about, and the brief selections from the piece that I cited in my August 28 post, being typical of the rambling and discursive nature of Vincent's prose, provide few clues in retrospect. It hardly matters, as I cannot imagine her article was so interesting that it justifies my returning to it once again and I am very familiar with the particulars of the fall-out that ensued.

The following day, August 29, I received, in the form of an e-mail, a letter from a reader, the award-winning journalist Charles Pierce. I asked Pierce whether I could publish his letter at the site and he gave me permission to do so with his name attached. The letter was published, in its entirety, at the Review on August 29. In that letter, Pierce said certain words in Vincent's essay "rang familiar" and he questioned her originality, this on the basis of the similarity he noticed between Vincent's prose at a particular point in the article and, as he came to recall, the lyrics of an old Jackson Browne song, Browne not having been mentioned or cited in Vincent's essay.

Since Vincent has never named her purported accuser, it's not entirely clear whether she is aflame over Pierce's comments, which did not include the word "plagiarism," or over the headline that I attached thereto, my sole contribution to the exercise aside from deciding to publish the letter at all, which reads, wholly and entirely:

Norah Vincent: Jackson Browne Fan -- And Plagiarist?

Was "plagiarist" the right word to use in this situation? I wasn't entirely sure then and I'm not sure now, and that's why I attached a question mark to the end of the sub-headline. In today's Times Vincent applauds weblogs because "unlike in the gated confines of print newspapers and magazines . . . anybody can participate in public debate on the Net." Well, participate they did, some defending Vincent and some not. The debate just didn't turn out the way Vincent wanted it to, and she's still not over it. Public debate is either healthy or it isn't, it doesn't depend upon the outcome, real or perceived.

She cannot have it both ways.

Instead of viewing the aftermath of the incident as a freewheeling exchange of ideas, Vincent in her self-contained, self-referential world found herself unfairly maligned, her reputation under attack, and her self-esteem, it would appear, almost mortally wounded. She lashed out, albeit ineffectively, a reaction that has continued in form and tone to this very day.

Vincent published her first defense against charges or suspicion of plagiarism at Norah's BlogJam on September 3, saying the accusation, such as it was, "requires a brief dismissal here." She continued:

The offending material? A famous Jackson Browne lyric to which I tipped my hat in an unpublished piece about 9/11. I said: "Reality hit hard that day, so hard that even Pearl Harbor seemed small by comparison, the fitful dream of this rude and much greater awakening." In his hit song "The Pretender" Browne sang "I want to know what became of the changes we waited for love to bring. Were they only the fitful dreams of some greater awakening?"

Leaving aside the dubious contention that Browne's lyric is "famous," coming, as it does, from a song that hit the airwaves in 1983, Vincent obfuscates the entire matter by referring to her essay as "an unpublished piece about 9/11."

"Unpublished" in what sense? Unpublished in the New York Sun, of course, which rejected the manuscript, a decision that, having been made by an upstart newspaper that isn't exactly bursting with copy, speaks volumes. But Vincent herself published it at Norah's BlogJam. Does Vincent mean to imply that posting an essay on her weblog means the article has not been published at all? By her faulty logic, if the piece wasn't really published at Norah's BlogJam then the alleged accusation of plagiarism wasn't really published at The Rittenhouse Review.

She cannot have it both ways.

Vincent similarly obfuscates when she tries to explain how the lyrics ended up in her essay:

I had, in fact, been listening to that song on my MP3 player about the time I was writing that piece, having downloaded it from the web. I've been a huge Browne fan since high school. Those four words crept, as lyrics are wont to do, into my subconscious, a place where, as anyone who actually makes a living as a writer knows, a great deal of one's work is done.

Well, as one who actually makes his living as a writer and has done so for more than 15 years, I ask: Which was it? Was Vincent deliberately tipping her hat and paying "obvious homage" [Ed: See quote, infra.] to a favorite songwriter? Or did the words emerge from her subconscious while she was writing the essay?

She cannot have it both ways.

Vincent's September 3 defense concluded:

There's no crime here. Nothing even beyond fair use, and obvious homage to a great and well known songwriter. End of story. The ridiculousness of this "charge" merits no further discussion.

Fine, she said her piece. But despite her contention that the matter "merits no further discussion," Vincent returned to the topic the very next day. At Norah's BlogJam on September 4 she complained of -- again unnamed -- webloggers who, in her words, try to draw attention to themselves by criticizing "legitimate targets":

By legitimate targets I mean people who have actually had some measure of success in their professional lives, people who get published regularly in the mainstream press because, yes, they have a certain degree of talent, but moreso because they have something more to say on a weekly basis than "boo hoo" or "look ma, no hands."

(I'll leave it to the readers of the L.A. Times to judge that last remark.)

With this little post, which, by the way, was where she first invented the charge of libel, Vincent disparaged and offended countless bloggers who take it as their right and duty to criticize not only public officials but the pundits who profess to monitor them. The very same bloggers, in fact, whom Vincent pretends to champion. For her own part, until she abandoned her erratic weblog, Vincent enjoyed straddling both sides of the fence: casting herself as a fiercely independent blogger breaking new ground in a democratizing new medium, but simultaneously posing as a writer who "had some measure of success" in her professional life, a lofty status that rendered her impervious to criticism from the "nasty riffraff" below.

She cannot have it both ways. (And, given that her site has been gathering dust for two months, it's clear Vincent prefers to lecture the hoi polloi from on high.)

Vincent concluded her September 4 post thusly:

As for the aforementioned -- though unnamed -- blogmonsters [sic], I have hereby railed enough against your poor and shallow tactics and will do so no more. You haven't earned respect from anyone, but I'll at least make an effort not to berate you any further. Instead I'll ignore you. So back to the swamp with you and the deserved obscurity from which you slithered.

I suppose it's not surprising that Vincent, who couldn't keep the pledge she made on September 3 even beyond September 4, has once again returned to this incident.

The heart of the matter

The heart of the matter here is that the determination of whether Vincent's use of Browne's lyrics, no matter how modest in scope, required her to refer the reader to the original writer is an editorial decision. That is, it would be incumbent upon Vincent to inform her editor that she was leaning on Browne and it would be up to Vincent's editor to determine whether an obscure 20-year-old lyric was sufficiently known and absorbed within the popular culture that the typical reader would knowingly catch Vincent's "tip of the hat."

However, by publishing the manuscript on her weblog, and doing so without saying it had been edited by the Sun (Actually, any reasonable reading of her August 26 post would lead to the conclusion that it had not been edited: rejected as "too rhetorical," she said they said.), Vincent was operating in the very same "virtual Wild West" about which she so crudely complained in her Times column: No editors, no fact-checkers, just Norah, writing and posting on her weblog, just like one of the peons.

Slyly, Vincent today says, "Common journalistic standards of accuracy and fair play exist for good reasons, and bloggers, like the rest of us, must abide by them." [Ed.: Emphasis added.] So now, at least as of today, Vincent is no mere blogger. She is a journalist, an assertion she makes without having even the slightest hint of experience as a reporter. She's not one of them, she's better, her once a week, 600-word, no doubt heavily edited Times piece presumably serving as prima facie evidence thereof.

As she approaches the end of her little piece, Vincent writes in high dudgeon: "So when bloggers willfully defame those with professional reputations to defend, that is a serious breach for which they should be held accountable."

I couldn't agree more.

Vincent is perhaps unaware, though she should not be -- nor should her editors and fact-checkers at the Times -- because this fact has been published on my site as well as those of several other writers: Although I don't earn any money from blogging, I am a writer and editor by profession.

It bears repeating: I earn my living by writing and editing.

Thus, I too have a professional reputation to defend. And neither Vincent nor the Times should be so presumptuous as to treat that reputation with such a reckless disregard for the facts and to so gleefully and carelessly throw around the disparaging terms that Vincent used and was allowed to use today. (Vincent's editor at the Times, who I have been informed is Mary Arno, has not returned my calls.)

Says Vincent:

Blogging is one of the best things that has ever happened to freedom of expression and the press, and we should make every effort to protect its scrupulous practitioners. But freedoms come with responsibilities. Common journalistic standards of accuracy and fair play exist for good reasons, and bloggers, like the rest of us, must abide by them. By drawing attention to libelous Web content, the Australian case may force them to.

Vincent's fit of pique notwithstanding, I consider myself to be a scrupulous practitioner of my craft, and I faithfully abide by the standards of accuracy and fair play. I have on several occasions published corrections when the circumstances warranted doing so. If Vincent disagrees, she can either continue to rant and rave to that effect from whatever forum may host her or she can use whatever other resources she has at her disposal to prove her contention.

She cannot have it both ways.

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