Star-Telegram television critic Ken Parish Perkins, in a November 10 overnight story about the ABC show Lost, described “The Others” as “a sinister group of kid-fixated island denizens. The only Others known to the castaways are Ethan, who infiltrated their ranks to kidnap the pregnant Claire, and the overall-wearing creepazoids who stole Walt from the raft.” The two sentences were taken directly from Entertainment Weekly. An editor at the Dallas Morning News recognized their provenance and told Star-Telegram executive editor Jim Witt about it. The 46-year-old Perkins was forced to resign, leaving behind his reputation and maybe his career.
ROWLETT: How did this happen?
PERKINS: I put a description from a magazine into my notes with the intent of changing it later. And while on deadline, I didn’t do that. It’s a routine but increasingly dangerous practice. An editor called me in on the day it ran and said there was an overlap. I looked at it and got sick to my stomach. The Star-Telegram then sent my stories over a nine-year period through a program that looks for duplication. When they found some other phrases and sentences, I was asked to resign, which I did. The only other time I was ever fired was in Danville, Illinois, when an editor called me the N-word and I knocked him over a table and broke his jaw.
|THE ACCIDENTAL PLAGIARIST: “My career is now gone. That’s a lot to take away for this kind of mistake.”|
ROWLETT: Did you ever consider the possible consequences when you were lifting sentences from other publications?
PERKINS: I did. But sometimes you are working so quickly and with so many different things that you may stick something inside your notes. The idea is to modify that and completely rewrite it. But sometimes it would stay there, particularly if you had a lot of copy. It is a dangerous practice, because sometimes when you write your story, it stays there.
ROWLETT: Did you ever purposely look for items in other publications that you could drop into something you were writing?
PERKINS: No. I never did that. I never felt like I had to have a certain phrase that would make a whole story. In a story that runs 1,500 to 3,000 words, I don’t think a phrase or two makes that much difference. And this wasn’t a matter of allowing it to happen, but rather doing it without knowing it was happening. I never did anything deliberately. It’s like I was on a treadmill and I kept moving and moving and moving.
ROWLETT: Have your reputation and career been ruined?
PERKINS: Close to it. I’m still trying to dig myself out of it. It’s still very soon, so I don’t know what the end result is going to be. When it first happened, there was a new emotion with every second of the day. But now I’m improving on how I look at it and at what happened and why it happened and what I need to do now to make sure my family is safe and fed and there’s some sort of normalcy.
ROWLETT: Do you think this kind of plagiarism is widespread in newspapers?
PERKINS: I do. There is an information overload right now, mainly because of the Internet, and people can grab information so quickly. I remember working at the Dallas Morning News, before the Internet was available, and researching material almost like a gum shoe detective. Now there is so much at your fingertips that you can get a lot of information quickly. And not only does some of that information seep into your stories, but it sort of stays in your subconscious, and it will come out in phrases that you write and you don’t know if it came from some outside source or from you.
ROWLETT: Much was written on blogs about you. Did you read them?
PERKINS: I didn’t read them, but my wife did in the early days after the incident. And it was so bad that she was sick to her stomach. I didn’t read them because I didn’t want that negativity. But I have to tell you that, from what I heard, it was just an enormous amount of misinformation. Colleagues and friends would call to ask me if I’d read this and this, and I was shocked by how much it was and how they had their facts wrong.
ROWLETT: What was the biggest lie that was said about you?
PERKINS: It wasn’t just about what happened at the Star-Telegram, but all of a sudden my years at the Chicago Tribune were called into question and I was made into some kind of fabricator. And that had never even occurred at the Chicago Tribune. I was shocked and couldn’t believe that.
ROWLETT: Can you stay in journalism?
PERKINS: I think I can. But would I want to? I know that I love writing, but whether or not I’ll go back to the newspaper industry, I don’t know. Newspapers are fighting for their lives at a time when the public no longer feels compelled to read them. Truth is, newspapers have been eroding for years, and part of the problem is the corporate mentality, and today everything is so formulaic and editor-driven.
ROWLETT: Do you think the Star-Telegram was afraid not to fire you, fearing the Morning News would do a story?
PERKINS: Was the firing justified? Considering the atmosphere surrounding plagiarism and fabrication within the newspaper industry, I don’t think they had a choice. Ten years ago, what I did would have meant suspension, if that, and I would have still had my career and my 8-year-old wouldn’t be worried about soccer camp. But through my firing, the Star-Telegram was able to prove to its audience and to the Morning News that it was willing to boot its high-profile critic. Would Jim Witt rather have me on the staff? Yes. But by doing what it did, the newspaper was able to score some pretty good credibility points.
ROWLETT: Before this happened, you had turned down a job in Atlanta. Why?
PERKINS: In my time at the Star-Telegram, I turned down a number of jobs that would have taken me to bigger cities and bigger newspapers. But the Star-Telegram gave me what I needed. They gave me a great platform and I could write what I wanted to write. It was like family.
ROWLETT: What do you think of that family now?
PERKINS: There are some people there who would go into battle for me, as I would for them. Some of them have certainly proven that. But there are a number of people who I wouldn’t want coming up behind me. I was a high-profile critic there for quite awhile and there were some people who thought I was getting advantages that they were not. But I can tell you I worked my butt off for that paper.
ROWLETT: What is your opinion of the Morning News editor, Rick Holter, who blew the whistle on you?
PERKINS: He was doing what he thought he needed to do. I have no animosity toward Rick Holter at all. We worked together at the Morning News. He was assistant editor at the time, and while we weren’t the best of friends, we weren’t enemies. I don’t think he has anything personal against me.
ROWLETT: Do you think it was an ethical question with him or a competitive issue?
PERKINS: I think it was both. He could have dealt with it differently, I suppose.
ROWLETT: Well, he could have called you, for one thing.
PERKINS: That would have been great. If he had done that, we could have talked about it, and I could have explained to him what happened and that I would never do it again. I mean, there is just so much on the line right now. My career is now gone, and my reputation is pretty much in the gutter. Whether or not I can get it back, I just don’t know. But that’s a lot to take away for this kind of mistake. I don’t really feel that I deserved all of this.
ROWLETT: What lessons have you learned from all that’s happened?
PERKINS: I’m now working on a couple of freelance projects. And I can tell you I have gone over every paragraph and every line and every word to make sure that it’s original. My research has changed. I don’t involve as much information as I did before because I’m trying not to get back into that habit that hurt the process where I might have phrases that come up that aren’t mine. So it really has changed the way I write. I am even asking editors to give me one extra day because I really want to be positively sure that what I’m doing is original. Credibility is all I’ve got, and right now it’s in shatters. But I really do feel that with hard work and credible stories, I can get it back.
Photos: Perkins: Elizabeth Lavin; Rowlett: Tom Hussy
D Magazine contributing editor Tracy Rowlett is a news anchor and managing editor at CBS Channel 11.