More than 30 years after he joined The Kansas City Star, 11 of which were spent as a columnist, Steve Penn has been fired from the city's major daily for stealing his work from other sources.
"In the normal editing process and follow-up review, it was discovered that Penn had lifted material from press releases verbatim, in some cases presenting others' conclusions and opinions as his own and without attribution," said the Star article announcing the firing. The Star gave multiple examples of Penn's theft, including an incident in which Penn's entire column was a near verbatim rewrite of a news release about Duke Ellington's family working with Alaadeen Enterprises Inc. to aid U.S. veterans.
More surprising than the Star's reaction to Penn's theft is that of some local media watchers. Over at John Landsberg's media blog Bottom Line Communications, one unidentified source says of the firing: "Competition from social media reporting is creating so much angst within the traditional media, that who knows what's ethical or not." As if the existence of Wordpress, Twitter and Facebook had changed the definition of plagiarism.
Penn's sin isn't using news releases to find something to write about. There are good causes and genuinely newsworthy events that need help getting word out. If a reporter hears about them because the people behind the scenes sent an e-mail pimping themselves rather than wait for word of mouth to do the job, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But reporters follow up on those releases with the basic journalistic work of making a few phone calls. In some cases, a reporter can make a story his own without even stepping out of the office.
Penn's worst crime was that in a business where his unknown compatriots are working under the shadow of a gun, for a smaller check, and without the luxury of 12 inches of column space to stump for whatever cause they want, he was too goddamn lazy.