Veteran journalist Nate Thayer started a media firestorm this week about freelance rates that may have overshadowed larger issues with his work and the state of journalism. Thayer was incensed when The Atlantic asked to republish a condensed version of his article "25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy" without paying him, but for the exposure. "Exposure doesn't feed my fucking children. Fuck that!" he told us at the time. But a closer look at the piece in question indicates that it may not have been up to publishing standards in the first place, and some are accusing of him of outright plagiarism. At the very least, his citations are a bit sloppy.
The article was posted originally on NKNews.org and runs more than 4,000 words. (TheAtlantic.com requested 1,200 words and asked Thayer to do the editing by the end of the week.) Felix Salmon noted after the story blew up, "In another layer of irony, it turns out that Thayer’s piece itself was deeply indebted to — and yet didn’t cite or link to — Mark Zeigler’s 2006 story on the same subject."
But a deeper dive today by blogger Jeremy Duns comes right out and says it: "Nate Thayer is a plagiarist."
According to Duns and a cached version of Thayer's article, the original version featured a single, not-hyperlinked citation to Zeigler: "In 2001, North Korea formally invited Michael Jordan to visit Pyongyang, according to documents obtained by the San Diego Union Tribune in 2006, but Jordan declined." Multiple links to the Union Tribune story have since been added.
But that's not all. Duns points out at least one example of "blatant plagiarism, of the type that gets you kicked out of school," in which Thayer indicates he conducted an interview that was also included in Zeigler's piece, and doctored a few words of the quote in question. Then there's this, an apparent factual error or worse:
Most of the quotes are simply lifted without citation from Zeigler's piece, giving the impression Thayer obtained them. But here's another peculiar one:
'And yet basketball seems to provide one of the United States’ few windows into the North Korean regime. This was highlighted by a comment made by U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum last year, when he said: “Kim [Jong Il] doesn’t want to die. He wants to watch NBA basketball.”''
And here's Zeigler in his 2006 article:
'“Kim doesn't want to die,” Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said a few years ago after one of Kim's missile tests sent waves of fear across the globe. “He wants to watch NBA basketball.”'
Here's Thayer, who indicates that he talked to Gene Schmiel of the U.S. State Department official "this week":
Ri Gun “then moved to the TV, turned it on and stared transfixed at the opening jump ball of the NBA basketball between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Schmiel recalled in an interview this week. “Ri Gun headed the delegation and talked about an interest in basketball and Michael Jordan…Scotty Pippen this and Michael Jordan that, the triangle defense this, three points shots. They cared more about the NBA than I did.”
“We spent the rest of our time together that evening debating not high policy, but high quality basketball shooting and such arcana as whether the NBA should permit use of the zone defense. It was clear from our discussions that he had watched the NBA for many years.”
But here are some of the same quotes from the Union Tribune in 2006, citing a diplomatic memo:
Wrote Schmiel in an article posted on an American diplomatic Web site: “He then moved to the TV, turned it on, and stared transfixed at the opening jump ball between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since I'm from Cleveland, we spent the rest of our time together debating not high policy but high-quality shooting and such arcana as whether the NBA should permit the use of zone defense.
“It was clear from our discussions that he had watched the NBA for many years.”
We found some other apparent slip-ups, at best. Thayer:
He was “scouted by every team in the NBA for 8 months,” Ri’s agent Michael Coyne remembers. […] in an interview Friday from his Ohio home. “The North Koreans wanted Ri in the NBA to make their people seem more normal as a diplomatic gesture, and Michael was the perfect man to do that. He was a very nice, very normal guy, who had a lot of talent and charm.”
And almost the exact same quote from the Union Tribune:
“Michael would have been able to play in the NBA,” said Michael Coyne, the Cleveland attorney who served as his U.S. liaison. “I think the North Koreans wanted to use the NBA marketing machine to show that North Koreans are normal people, and it would have worked because Michael was the perfect guy to show that. He had a great attitude, he was a hard worker and he had great charisma.”
Thayer wrote earlier this week in an e-mail, "Every reference in the story was properly cited and the overwhelming amount was obtained through old fashioned legwork where I personally contacted dozens of sources and interviewed them." He has not responded to a request for comment today.
Asked this afternoon what the odds are that a source would say basically the same thing, in the same order, seven years later, NK News founder Tad Farrell told Daily Intelligencer, "It's perfectly possible, in my opinion, that the individual in question could've made a similar comment. I don't know why you guys are coming to me about this when you can verify with the people who are quoted."
Farrell did admit "we had numerous attribution errors" and that the piece has been updated multiple times. "I can see why the allegations may have been made, but I can assure you that there was no plagiarism there." He added, "This is a completely voluntarily run blog. We have no resources. We trust the journalists that are writing for us. I don't have time to double-check everything that goes up. But because of Mr. Thayer's background I fully trust him."
Assuming The Atlantic was not prepared to devote a full, labor-intensive (and expensive!) fact-check to the piece, an uncommon thing for online-only stories industrywide, they may have gotten lucky. It turns out that when Thayer decried "the state of journalism in 2013," he was unintentionally shining a light on issues much larger than not paying freelancers.