When a Big Story Starts Small
Last Wednesday at around midnight, on the coldest night of the year, a New York Times reporter named Annie Correal was still at work when an email popped up in her inbox.
 
Apparently because she’d been covering the cold snap - not a highly sought-after assignment - someone saw her byline. The email stated that inmates at the Federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn were languishing behind bars without heat, hot water or lights.
 
“It appeared to have been sent by a family member of an MDC Brooklyn inmate or someone who was in touch with families,” Correal told Communications Breakdown .
 
“It was a few sentences long but described an alarming situation…the anonymous tipster, who wrote from a disguised email address, didn’t respond to follow-up emails, but I started digging the next day — calling Federal Defenders and union officials — and everything they had told me was true.”
Correal’s story ran in the Times the next morning. It described a Dickensian scene in which more than 1,000 inmates shivered in darkness, huddling up in their beds.

A spokesperson for the warden, Herman Quay, simply denied it. Not to be outdone, the federal Bureau of Prisons stated “cells have heat and hot water, there is lighting in the common areas and inmates are receiving hot meals.” (Good luck with the coming investigations, guys).

The next day, television cameras descended on the scene, with NY1 News leading the charge. And then family members and activists: first a small knot, then a swelling crowd. Inmates began banging their windows within earshot of the press.

Mayor de Blasio got involved. "The federal government has massively failed the people being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center,” he tweeted.

Blanket denials from the feds faded into assurances that the situation was being remedied. Governor Cuomo added outrage at the state level. There were more protests. Finally, three days after the first story – but apparently a week after an electrical fire caused the outages – power was restored.

Inmate stories are tricky because it’s a population that is out of sight to most citizens. There’s also an undeniable bias that those who are locked up are, well, locked up for a reason – jail isn’t supposed to be fun. So why did the story of the Brooklyn jail break the pattern?

Everyone was experiencing the cold, and images of that building were hard to ignore – viewers couldn’t help but imagine being frozen in there. And no matter what the inmates did before being arrested, it was a shocking lapse by the federal government (also, it was the feds; de Blasio and Cuomo were free to attack).

All those reasons, but of course there was one other. The right reporter was on duty that night.
Can Someone Let Us Know When it's Plagiarism?
It’s not surprising that so many reporters, commentators and occupants of the Twittersphere have brought differing assumptions to the debate over Jill Abramson’s use of other writers’ words in her new book “Merchants of Truth.” Subjects in her book have had a "gotcha" field day with this, turning up a shocking number of sections apparently cut-and-pasted from other publications.

We’ve always marveled at the rules of the road in the publishing business when it comes to using other authors’ works. Want to base entire chapters of your book about Richard Nixon on the reporting in All the President’s Men ? No problem, as long as you place a vague citation in tiny type at the back of your book. We’ve written a few books in our time, and it’s downright weird to see your journalism all over the place in someone else’s work. Sometimes it’s flattering. Sometimes you feel robbed.

In Abramson’s case, she neglected in some instances to mention at all that she was using other people’s words – a bright line in the plagiarism debate. But in others, she did include attributions in the back of her book, yet was still dinged for it. CNN reported that it had “discovered” two additional examples of “apparent plagiarism” last night:

“In the first case,” it reported, “Abramson listed the publication she was drawing from in her end notes section located after the conclusion in her book. In the second case, she did not. Neither of the publications she drew from were credited in the actual body text of the book.”

Wait, what are the rules again?

Last night, the former Times editor grudgingly accepted the criticisms and announced she would “fix” certain passages.

“The notes don’t match up with the right pages in a few cases and this was unintentional and will be promptly corrected,” she said. “The language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text. This, too, will be fixed.”

Abramson spoke about the infractions as if they were typos in need of cleaning up. But while clearly more serious than that, how much more serious was it? There's no clear consensus out there about how to judge these things, or what to do about them.
Talking About Tesla
Elon Musk’s electric car company is a staple of the financial pages; it’s hard to tell if business writers love him or hate him (probably both). His corporate and personal ups-and-downs get copious coverage: profits up, profits stalled, production up, production stalled, layoffs, the boss’s ill-advised tweeting and so forth and so on.
   
But this story in the Post tells us even more: it’s about a fellow named Elvis Nunez, who happened by a $120,000 Tesla Model S with the keys in the ignition on the Upper East Side and couldn’t resist jumping in and taking it for a spin. “He just wanted to give it a ride,” an officer said.  He was arrested a short distance away (sorry, Elvis).

Communications Breakdown spotted a more modest blue Model 3 in Midtown Manhattan recently. As it turned onto Sixth Avenue – silent, beyond the gentle buzz of rubber on asphalt – heads turned, and stayed turned until the car disappeared into traffic.

Nunez’ risking arrest to drive a Tesla for a few minutes, and those craning heads in Midtown, show that beyond the white noise of financial news, these cars have an unmistakable hold on people’s imaginations. As long as that’s true, Musk will probably be just fine.
Here and There
Comings and Goings in Media and Communications

Andrew Golis joins WNYC as chief content officer from Vox… Ken Lovett , whose departure from The Daily News we noted last week, becomes vice president of communications and Albany director at Metropolitan Public Strategies… Ray Hernandez , once of The New York Times , more recently of DCI Group, joins Marathon Strategies… Remy Stern departs The New York Post after six years, most recently as chief digital officer. This, just a few weeks after publisher Jesse Angelo did the same…(what’s going on over there?)

Quotable
“At this point, the Times could pay for the newsroom two times over with just digital money.” Joshua Benton of NeimanLab on the Times’ 2018 financials.
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