When one reporter's copy echoes another's, some of us are quick to invoke the P word. But context matters. Sometimes you sense a reporter floundering in deep and foreign waters, clutching at another writer's words to stay afloat.
I sensed it here ...
Bruce Graham, the architect who designed the John Hancock Building and the Sears (now Willis) Tower, died Saturday In Florida. On Tuesday, Blair Kamin, who knows architecture backwards and forwards, in particular Chicago architecture, published an obit in the Tribune.
On Wednesday, an obit appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
Said Kamin of the Hancock: "The X-braces offered an instantly recognizable skyline image."
Said the Journal a day later of the Hancock: "Prominent X-shaped braces made the building instantly recognizable."
Kamin said of the Hanock and Willis that they "bracket Chicago's skyline like enormous black parentheses."
The Journal called them "two buildings that together bracket the city's skyline."
Kamin had the late Walter Netsch once saying, "Bruce Graham is very tough."
The Journal had Stanley Tigerman saying, "He was a very tough guy."
Kamin wrote: ""Sears Tower offered an even taller variation on the tube theme, consisting of nine interlocked tubes.... Once as Mr. Graham, a smoker, related the story of the Sears Tower's origins, while lunching with Khan, he grabbed a handful of cigarettes, cupped some in his hands and placed a smaller group on top, demonstrating what came to be called the 'bundled tube' concept.The 75-foot square tubes rose together until two dropped off at the 50th floor, two more stopped at the 66th, and three more at the 90th, leaving only two to rise to the summit."
The Journal wrote: "Mr. Graham's use of tube construction reached its apotheosis in the Sears Tower...which consisted of conjoined tubes of varying heights. Mr. Graham, a smoker, first demonstrated the concept to his engineering partner at SOM, Fazlur Khan, by gripping a bundle of cigarettes, with the ones at the center sticking up higher. Of the nine tubes at the base of the building, only two ascended to the 1,451-foot high top of the structure."
Kamin concluded: "Nearly three years after hijacked jets toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001, Mr. Graham demonstrated that he had lost none of his self-assurance. 'If that plane would have hit the Sears Tower,' he told a reporter, 'the plane would have fallen, not the tower.'"
The Journal concluded: "In a 2004 interview with the Port St. Lucie News, near where he had retired in Hobe Sound, Fla., Mr. Graham said that the 9/11 bombers would have been less successful hitting the tallest building in Chicago. 'If that plane would have hit the Sears Tower, the plane would have fallen, not the tower,' he said."
What we had here, I suspected, was a Journal reporter, Stephen Miller, not so much cribbing from Kamin as clinging to Kamin's example. I wondered if Kamin's savvy retrospective of Graham's career was what caused the Journal to assign the story in the first place. The Journal, alas, had no one so savvy to assign it to. Miller's speciality is the obit itself (J.D. Salinger, Alexander Haig), not the fields his subjects happened to excel in.
I emailed Miller Wednesday night noting that his story evoked Kamin's and asking him to comment on my notion that he'd let Kamin "guide you through waters he knows well and you do not." At 7:40 Thursday morning I received email back from a Journal editor asking what my deadline was. (So, Miller had immediately told his editors his story was being challenged. Well, good for him.) With us bloggers, every deadline is ASAP, I replied. A couple hours later I got a call from assistant managing editor Karen Pensiero.
She said I was wrong about a couple of things. The Journal's story had not been triggered by Kamin's story, she told me, but by a news release sent out by the Graham family that was turned over to Miller. Furthermore, he had not modeled his story after Kamin's — that was just one of 11 sources, including books, that Miller had rounded up. In fact, she said, the 9/11 anecdote had not originally ended Miller's story — the story had been placed there by an editor.
As further evidence of the independence of Miller's research, Pensiero noted that the Journal was just then preparing a correction to Miller's story, which had said Graham was partly of Scottish descent. That misinformation hadn't come from Kamin, who correctly reported he was Canadian. (Another mistake in Miller's story didn't come from Kamin either. The Hancock Center is not Chicago's second-tallest building. It's actually fourth.)
But, said Pensiero, "I Have to acknowledge some of the phrases were identical. He should have taken greater care to make sure turns of phrase don’t reappear in his story, and he will in the future. That's sloppy. It absolutely shouldn't happen." She said the Journal had even gone through some of Miller's other stories to see if there was a pattern of borrowing language, and there wasn't.
There's a skill reporters have to master. It's the knack of phrasing completely unoriginal ideas in completely original language. When we don't pull it off, sometimes nonjournalists wonder what all the fuss is about. On the other hand, no one could fail to appreciate the blunder the New York Times committed in its story on Bruce Graham. In some editions Wednesday, including the edition circulated in Chicago, the obit was illustrated with a photo of the John Hancock Tower in Boston, a building Graham had nothing to do with.