Another side of the story

Much of the mediati, local and national, has been buzzing over the Star-Telegram’s Ken Parish Perkins’ resignation in the light of  plagiarism allegations. Eric Celeste, Editor of Southwest Spirit, and Ken’s former editor at the Startlegram sent The Frontburner, Romanesko, and us his take on Ken’s and the paper’s actions:

I‘ve calmed a bit since last week, when I was convined Ken Parish Perkins was
wronged by Fort Worth Star-Telegram editor Jim Witt and the entire "family" at
that paper. Since I used to work at the paper (I’m the f
ormer Arts Editor and
Features Editor; I was Ken’s editor when he was hired in 1996), since I have
friends there, and since his wife shared inside information with me, I’ve been
able to come to a fuller understanding of what happened and why. I’m no longer
furious. I’m still upset, though, as I’m not convinced that destroying a man’s
reputation and (possibly) career was the right thing to do. As the cowardly
hit-and-run posts and stories concerning Ken’s character continue to pop
here, I think it’s important that I tell what I know and explain why I hope he
will continue to write for my publication. And since JIm Witt said in his own paper that earning readers’ trust was the central issue here, I’m sure he won’t
mind my shedding additional light on what happened.

A few weeks ago, Ken
wrote a short overnight story that had two sentences describing "The Others" in
the ABC show "Lost." Those sentences were verbatim (with additional information
added in) taken from Entertainment Weekly’s online "L
ost" glossary. Jim Witt
says a "reader" alerted the paper. What Witt failed t
o note in his "full
disclosure" moment was that this reader is an editor at the paper’s regional
competitor, The Dallas Morning News. That editor alerted another editor at the
Star-Telegram, who put the investigation in motion. They found another similar
instance of a graph or two (I’m not sure) that matched up a published story a
few years ago (again, it was background information) and a great many instances
of similar phrasings from, for example, background info found on network web

Thus began the end for Ken. He had no recourse, no ability to
appeal for mercy, because none could be granted. Why not? Because editors are
scared to make decisions on their own. They edit scared every day, in every way.
They’re scared of the Internet, scared of taking a stand, scared of using their
gut, scared of being criticized by readers or fringe media wonks or colleagues
or corporate suits, scared of making a decision that could mess up the sweet
life they’ve carved for themselves. The Star-Telegram was scared that since the
Morning News alerted them, they would do something on it in their paper. Making
an independent decision could get one into trouble.

The solution? Turn
everything over to the runaway train known as "the process." Have a computer
check your work against everything every published, uttered, or thought. Have
committees of people from other papers that evaluate what the response should
be. Have HR drones look up procedures in manuals. Do everything they can to
further dehumanize this business. No longer does an editor walk into someone’s
office, shut the door, and try to offer a response that considers the totality
of man and what he’s given to the paper. They ignore that he turned down a job
in Atlanta because, as he told friends at the time, the paper felt like family,
and he was afraid he’d lose that at a bigger title. They don’t consider that he
stayed at Motel 6s and ate free buffets instead of ordering room service to save
the company money, even though he didn’t always have to.

Taken as a
whole, the number of problems found in Ken’s copy was very troubling. There’s no
denying that. But was it worth destroying a man’s career? I’m sure many would
say yes. I don’t think so. For me, it deserved a sharp reprimand for cutting
corners, and I think a three-day or one-week suspension for the five or so
sentences that appeared to be lifted from another source in two stories. It
would deserve a stern lecture the thrust of which would be, "Ken, even though
you’ve written more than a story a day [on average] for this paper for nine
years, even though you’re balancing a lot with work and two kids, you can’t put
yourself or us in this position again. This is your warning." I know some of the
paper’s management agreed that something similar to this should have been the
path chosen, but those people were overruled.

There’s a lot of things I
still don’t know. I don’t know why Ken did such stupid, careless things. I don’t
know if anyone will ever give him another chance in this business. I don’t know
how many people will join the Ken Parish Perkins dogpile, using third-hand
gossip from gutless "sources" and petty hacks. I don’t know if I’m saying all
this just because I’m a naive fool who believes that a business which tries to
examine the human condition should allow a man a chance to fight his demons,
large and small, before casting him out.

But I’m going to focus on what I
do know. I know Ken has overcome greater obstacles than this. I know he will
survive and, I hope, thrive. I know I would recommend him to anyone. I know Ken
is the best human being I’ve ever met in this business. I know that doesn’t
absolve him his journalistic sins, whatever they may be. But I know it should
count for something, even if it only means that I’ll continue to give him
freelance work as it arises. I’ll do so mostly because I think it’s the right
thing to do, and partly because I’ve alway enjoyed throwing rocks at trains. I
wish more people did.

I don’t know Ken, nor have I ever read a word of his copy. But if Eric says he’s good people, that’s enough for me.

Of course, as suggested by a post on Media Orchard: If local newspapers used their resources intelligently, Ken would have just linked to the EW piece online — and then spent his time writing original copy about things happening locally.

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.