A Tale of Plagiarism in Old Nantucket
By Viki Reath
Viki Reath is a reporter for Environment Week in Washington, D.C.
Last January at the weekly Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, John Stanton took a news story written by one of his reporters, stuck his own byline on it and sold it to a sister paper for $35. And then things got complicated.
Stanton, who was the sports and assistant editor at the 10,000-circulation Massachusetts weekly, was exposed three months after he lifted one of Jeffrey Keegan's stories verbatim and submitted it to the daily Cape Cod Times in Hyannis (both papers are owned by Ottaway Newspapers). The previous November, the editor had used extended passages from another of Keegan's stories. After the weekly Nantucket Beacon phoned to ask about both incidents, Stanton resigned. Saying they'd had enough of the situation, Keegan and another reporter also left.
"An incident like this doesn't help journalists," says Beacon reporter Theresa DeFranzo, who broke the story after being tipped by the paper's former copy editor. "A lot of people don't see why he had to leave the paper. It leaves in my mind the question of what would have happened had I not called."
Probably nothing, since the Inquirer and Mirror's editor and a top Ottaway executive had known of Stanton's actions for months. The copy editor who tipped DeFranzo, Paul Conley, says that he had overheard reporters grumbling about Stanton's plagiarism and notified Gerald Tache, an Ottaway senior vice president, as well as the paper's editor and publisher, Marianne Stanton, who is John Stanton's wife.
Marianne Stanton says that while the breach was taken seriously, she didn't consider it grounds for dismissal because the disputed story had not appeared in her paper. Earlier, her husband had apologized to Keegan and promised to pay him for the material, she says, and "at the time we thought [that] reaction was appropriate."
John Stanton, 35, says he doesn't know what prompted him to steal Keegan's work. "I guess it was [deadline] pressure... It was just at a time when a bunch of other things were going on," says the former editor, who worked at the paper for five years and is now painting houses. "It's like a kid who steals candy from the store and doesn't know why he did it. The bottom line is I lost my column, and I'm no longer at the paper."
Bill Breisky, editor of the victimized Cape Cod Times, says the daily "expected [Stanton's] material to be regurgitated from the Inquirer and Mirror, but he didn't even go to the trouble of digesting it." Breisky nevertheless sounded almost as exasperated as Marianne Stanton that AJR considered Stanton's breach noteworthy, arguing that similar thefts occur everyday and "people don't make a big case about it." Reporters "steal from other papers [all the time] and no one calls it stealing," he says. "You just change the wording a little, and it's your story. And we have radio stations who plagiarize us every day." While Breisky doesn't condone such actions, he says Stanton's action seems more "an act of stupidity than an act of theft."
The Stantons, meanwhile, blame Paul Conley, who resigned several weeks before the story broke, for creating the controversy. Marianne Stanton says he was disgruntled in part because she had asked him to do more writing, so he dredged up her husband's January breach as retribution. John Stanton says it is inappropriate for Conley to "trash" a colleague. "Had he made this mistake," he says, "I would have been a hell of a lot more forgiving."
Although Marianne Stanton insists Conley was the only person dissatisfied with how she and Ottaway handled the incident, others disagree.
Keegan, who was hired at the Inquirer and Mirror in October 1992, says he had been told that Stanton had a habit of lifting lengthy passages from Inquirer and Mirror stories for his bylined Times articles. The reporter says he kept quiet about the practice until late January, when Stanton lifted one of his stories in its entirety. "Initially, he tried to brush it aside," recalls Keegan, 23. "When I told him, 'Come on! You can't plagiarize my stories!' it became apparent I wouldn't let him brush it aside."
Reporter Mark Merchant says he left the Inquirer and Mirror because the paper seemed to be doing just that. "I told John that I've been under [deadline] pressure too, but I've never put my name on someone else's story," recalls Merchant, now at the Cape Cod Times. "If it had been addressed at the outset, perhaps with a reprimand or suspension, then John's and Jeff's resigning – and mine at that particular time – might not have happened."
Asked why Ottaway did not respond immediately after being told of Stanton's plagiarism, Gerald Tache says Conley had requested anonymity and "I didn't want to tip [his] hand" by notifying Marianne Stanton so soon after meeting with him. He adds that Ottaway has "a policy of going to the limit before we make a decision like this [dismissing someone]. Stanton was a good employee, a good writer, a good asset. We're saddened by this."
Conley says he still doesn't understand why Ottaway took so long to react, or why he and Keegan are unemployed while Marianne Stanton, "who protected the plagiarist and attacked me for exposing the plagiarism, still has her job... Nobody did a thing until it was in the press."
At the Beacon, reporter DeFranzo says she's appalled by what she sees as a double standard by the Inquirer and Mirror. "If a government official did something the equivalent of this," she notes, "it would have been page one news." ###