Another calendar year brings the start of another editorial “compet,” in which Sun staffers will try out new roles for six weeks. Compet culminates in elections, this year on March 5, after which the 129th Editorial Board will take over. I will end my tenure as public editor after the new board is chosen — and after a replacement is found, if the new board wants to keep the position (I hope they do).
In the meantime, there’s still plenty of work for me to do. Since the winter break began, there have been two major developments that deserve further comment from me: the arrest of a former Sun editor and a plagiarism charge levied against a Sun columnist.
Keri Blakinger ’11 was arrested in December and charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the second degree, a Class A-II felony. Police documents indicate she had about six ounces of heroin in a Tupperware container.
According to City Editor Michael Linhorst ’12, a police press release indicated that the heroin was worth about $150,000. In a revised police release, however, that figure was moved down to a range of $50,000 to $150,000, Linhorst said. The arrest sparked national attention: The majority of that coverage focused on the dollar amount and did not bother to update the story when the estimate was lessened.
Blakinger used to work for The Sun, which was disclosed in these pages as follows: “Blakinger is a former Sun staff writer. She also previously served as editor of Red Letter Daze and features editor.” While this is informative, I think the reporting should have detailed when The Sun’s relationship with Blakinger had ended.
That relationship did not end in straightforward fashion. Blakinger was elected as Daze editor during Spring 2010, but news editors said that she did not fulfill her duties early in the following Fall Semester. Top editors removed Blakinger from the Daze position soon after and she became nominally a features editor, but the news editors said she did not do any work in that capacity. In the fall’s final issue, Blakinger’s name still appeared in The Sun’s masthead as “features editor.” This semester, however, Blakinger’s name is gone.
A former columnist’s plagiarism was discovered over the break: It was passed along to The Sun that Amyn Bandali ’11, in his “Ramblings” column, copied ideas and passages from “Confessions of a Mental Patient,” a column by the late Drew Webb ’08 that appeared in 2006 and 2007.
Bandali wrote six columns for The Sun. Associate Editor Tony Manfred ’11 showed me four specific instances that were reported to The Sun, in which a joke appears nearly identically in Bandali’s column as it originally was in Webb’s column.
I scoured Bandali’s columns for other possible instances of lifted content, and found a handful of others in which he used ideas and writing structure from Webb’s old columns, although not direct passages. They all seemed consistent with the instances that were reported to The Sun, and I could not conclusively find any evidence of plagiarism from other sources. There were some unique-sounding phrases in Bandali’s column that appear elsewhere on the Internet, but there is no kind of pattern to suggest that they are causally linked.
A wrinkle here is that Bandali and Webb went to the same high school in Texas, a few years apart. Webb was a Cornell lacrosse player and graduated in 2008. He went to a post-bachelor’s health program at the University of Pennsylvania. Webb had struggled with depression for years, according to reports, and took his own life in April 2010. Earlier this month, Webb’s friends and family started a 7-on-7 lacrosse tournament in Houston, the proceeds of which benefited that area’s Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.
The Sun addressed the plagiarism with “A Statement to Our Readers” on Jan. 24, indicating that Bandali had previously left The Sun for unrelated reasons. If he had not, the statement noted, he would have been fired. The Sun also appended each of Bandali’s online columns with a note mentioning the similarities between “Ramblings” and “Confessions of a Mental Patient.” I think all of The Sun’s actions were proper.
I also appreciated The Sun’s candor in acknowledging how its inherent lack of institutional memory sometimes makes these problems difficult to detect. Also at play here is the trust that newspapers put in their writers to uphold journalistic principles and create original, verifiable work. When that trust is violated, it reflects extremely poorly on all parties involved.
Bandali released an apology for his actions, saying that his purpose was to “honor” Webb, who “was a huge inspiration to [Bandali] throughout high school and Cornell.” If Bandali’s heart was in the right place, his head certainly was not. While the human element perhaps removes some of the moralistic shame from Bandali’s actions, they are still unacceptable in a journalistic context.
His apology also notes that he’s made peace with Webb’s family. I sincerely hope that his feelings reflect the genuine tone of his written apology, and that he is still willing to seek outlets for his creativity in the future.
In the next few weeks, I intend to have further coverage of The Sun’s editorial compet. And as always, I welcome reader feedback on Sun journalism, both positive and negative. Please direct all letters to me at email@example.com.