BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Many news organizations have written policies for crediting other news organizations in their coverage, but there are also unwritten rules.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Shugar writes the Today's Papers column for Slate.com and joins us once again. Nice to have you back, Scott.
SCOTT SHUGER: Hi, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:I gather that reading the newspaper can be more revealing about the newspaper business than about the actual news. You noticed something in the Washington Post this week.
SCOTT SHUGER: Right. Earlier this week the Washington Post ran a story under the headline Field Offices Assure FBI All McVeigh Files Are In. Their news of the piece doesn't actually appear until the sixth paragraph which is not really about the files per se but is about a letter that appeared somewhere else written by Timothy McVeigh. The somewhere else was the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle had a letter from Timothy McVeigh saying definitively there was no John Doe Number Two which of course takes a lot of the steam out of the FBI Files story and therefore is important and, and is important to readers, but it was buried in the story and the story was buried in the paper because it is a Houston Chronicle break. I mean you know if we were just going by journalism principles the headline of the story would be Timothy McVeigh Tells Houston Newspaper There Was No John Doe.
BOB GARFIELD: And that's not unique, right? There was another one the previous week.
SCOTT SHUGER:Towards the end of the week the Washington Post had a story on page 29 saying that Ted Olson who is the Bush administration's nominee to become the next Solicitor General of the United States had not been truthful when he said he had no connection to a sort of "Get Bill and Hillary" project at the magazine The American Spectator which he officially served as a lawyer. The Post had a story which they ran on page 29 interviewing another writer who then was at the American Spectator, David Brock [sp?], saying that no, Olson is not being truthful. He did not testify truthfully before the committee. That story ran on page 29 and it didn't mention that actually the story was broken by Salon, the Web magazine.
BOB GARFIELD:If a paper gets beat, whatever they're beat on is going to be relegated inside or will lose the prominent display it would have had if in this case the Washington Post had broken the story. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
SCOTT SHUGER: Right. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: What's behind that? Is, is it vanity? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
SCOTT SHUGER: Well-- It, it is vanity. It's business. It's-- stories that we don't break, we don't cover because it makes us look like we're catching up; we're not on the forefront, so it's bad for our image, therefore bad for our, our advertising and so on and so on. But readers don't care about any of that stuff! They don't really care who broke a story. They would like to know what's important, number one; and they'd like to know as much information as possible on that important story. Notice how when you downplay a story that you didn't break, you dis-serve the reader on both counts.
BOB GARFIELD:Now there's a flip side to this phenomenon. There are times when the Washington Post and other major news organizations are only too pleased to dispense credit. What's the deal there?
SCOTT SHUGER: The Post ran a story-- also this past week under the headline Jeb Bush Denies Rumors of Affair with State Official; Florida Governor Calls Gossip an Outright Lie over the byline of Howard Kurtz [sp?] who's the newspaper's media critic. This was a story which enabled the Post to repeat the rumors that were flying around Florida and in order to avoid the charge of scandal-mongering themselves, this story mentions very high up that the story has appeared elsewhere, and interestingly enough here, this story mentions the Internet first and then it mentions several Florida newspapers by name.
BOB GARFIELD: In this case to provide ethical cover. You get to invoke these other newspapers.
SCOTT SHUGER: Right. You know, we're not reporting on the sleaze. We're reporting on the reporting on the sleaze.
BOB GARFIELD:The implication of course is that by mentioning the names that these other news organizations are so clearly beneath us -- you know we don't trade in these practices but the likes of these do, and that's why we're naming them. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
SCOTT SHUGER: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: But when, when these same news organizations break major stories that the Post doesn't get till 48 hours later, then oddly those names disappear.
SCOTT SHUGER: You got it. That's, that's one of the real rules of journalism that we saw this week.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Scott Shugar, thanks very much.
SCOTT SHUGER: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Shugar writes the column Today's Papers on Slate.com.