The Willamette Week, a Portland, OR weekly newspaper, has always presented itself as the guardian of journalist ethics. But last week, a reader discovered that one of the weekly paper's music reviewers had blatantly plagiarized a review for a well-known reggae band. What's even more alarming, was the paper's hush-hush response to accusations.
In a September 19, 2001 issue, frequent contributor John Vassallo wrote a preview for an upcoming performance of the well-traveled group, Burning Spear. The somewhat awkward preview seemed to ape the voice of a rasta-master, peppering the wording with "jah word" and "jah creation." In addition, the preview oddly predicted that "young women will manage to get past the barrier and security, tapping into their 15 minutes of fame."
The peculiar voice was easily explained by a visit to the band's own website (www.burningspear.net/road.html). From this site, Vassallo directly lifted wording from the travel journal, posted by the band's trombonist, Micah 'Prof.' Robinson. The preview published in the Willamette Week was a composite of the published script from Burning Spear's August 25 show at Red Rocks in Denver, and their August 26 appearance at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. At the Boulder show, writes Robinson, "A couple of young women managed to get past the barrier and security. I guess they were tapping into their 'fifteen minutes of fame.'" In fact, with the exception of changes to verb tenses and punctuation, it is difficult to find any original text in what the Willamette Week published.
When contacted by cross-town weekly paper, the Portland Mercury, to clarify whether there was a reasonable explanation for the similarity, none of the editors were able to provide an explanation. John Graham, who was filling in for the regular music editor (who was on vacation), responded that he would contact the writer and give him a "what's for."
But when WW was contacted more than a business day later, Graham was unavailable for comment--either that day or, according to a message passed along by the receptionist, the entire following day. Moreover, publisher Mark Zusman had yet to be informed, and Vassallo, the writer in question, had yet to be contacted. It was not until three business days later that WW was able to explain that the writer had been hoping to parody the voice of a rastaman.
In response to concerns about plagiarism, WW wrote a terse "editor's note" that explained that Vassallo's preview "consisted of material taken without proper credit."