Aaron Sorkin, the noted screenwriter (“Social Network,” “The West Wing,” “A Few Good Men”) and Karen Jeffrey, a reporter for the Cape Cod Times, both write decent fiction. But only one of them is supposed to.
Mr. Sorkin, 51, is an award-winning writer. Ms. Jeffrey, 59, is not supposed to be making up stories. But the reporter, who also covers courts and police and has worked at her paper for 32 years, has been mixing in fictional features with her reporting duties for about 14 years, the paper found.
This is not a plagiarism story. Jeffrey could have written fiction or books on the side and could have acknowledged it. Instead, her editors said Dec. 5 they couldn’t find 69 people quoted in 34 stories since 1998. Since telling the truth is something newspapers are supposed to do, the embarrassed editors apologized in print and let Jeffrey go. They’d become suspicious when one had a gut instinct that a Nov. 12 story about a Veterans Day parade was just too good to be true. They couldn’t find the star of that story, a Ronald Chipman of Boston.
Jeffrey responded to an editor’s query by saying she’d thrown out her notes. That sparked the wailing sirens as the paper began checking other stories she did. Another piece about a parade in 2011 named Johnson Coggins, 88. The paper couldn’t find him either. It found a Jeffrey story about a marathon but couldn’t find the runner she cited as having registered. It checked other stories using Facebook profiles as well as voter and assessor records.
After the publisher and editor of the 36,000-plus daily paper wrote their apology, Jim Romenesko’s journalism website picked it up. So did the New York Times, this weekend. Not to be outdone by a fiction writer, Times writer Katharine Q. Seelye looked for speculation about why Jeffrey’s paper didn’t find her out sooner.
“Of course, nonexistent people do not call up to complain,” Seelye deadpanned.
The Jeffrey story itself would represent good fiction — except it’s not. The reporter drew commendations from state troopers for her accuracy on police reports. She had gone unnoticed for 32 years, though the paper checked primarily records since it began electronically archiving itself in 1998.
Stories about writers who plagiarize always raise the same question. Why would a writer with a known byline risk a career-wrecking event by borrowing someone else’s work? There’s the risk that the plagiarized writer will complain, and search engines make it easy to check out a suspect phrase or paragraph. The resulting speculation usually centers on deadline pressure or faulty attribution, as the guilty writer often admits to having “forgotten” to say from where the borrowed words came.
There is shame in that. And there’s shame in the Jeffrey case, but in an odd kind of way.
Jeffrey’s saga has a special wrinkle. Of all the stories she had to write, features were the easiest. She didn’t have to dig far to get a quote, never had to check a court record or prod a public figure to confess. They were the easiest to invent. Using only her fertile mind, Jeffrey could sit at her computer at home and take flight.
Jeffrey became, while working as a reporter, an accomplished fiction writer. Her stories featured the shorter sentences favored by fiction or dialogue writers. All she had to do was announce to readers that she was a reporter writing short stories on the side. She’d not be the first writer to dabble. She could have written a continuing serial saga with perhaps two episodes per week in which characters were entangled in trysts, attempted homicides, hoaxes and counterfeiting, all to the glee of readers. Had she done exactly that, she’d have injected more life into her paper, as readers breathlessly would await the next episode.
Then she could have graduated to books, TV series, and movies. She might have rated a New York Times mention in a different guise.
Cape Cod Times publisher Peter Meyer and editor Paul Pronovost said they never coaxed an explanation out of Jeffrey, though she admitted to the fabrications.
Seelye, the Times reporter, quoted a state trooper as speculating that Jeffrey felt demoted and depressed after she was taken off police assignments a few years ago. The editor also said Jeffrey may have felt demeaned by being told to work early morning assignments as well.
Still, Jeffrey and the paper received nothing but compliments from the sheriff of Barnstable County, which includes Hyannis, where the paper is based.
Jeffrey may feel “down in the dumps,” as Seelye quoted her editor as saying, but she may still have a promising career ahead whether she knows it or not. Cape Cod and Hyannis, about 75 miles southeast of Boston, are loaded with seafaring tales and older homes that could easily be haunted and probably are. And the Cape is mostly quiet and deserted during non-summer months. It has only one airport from which to stage a fast escape.
It boasts the fabled Barnstable County Courthouse and a host of smaller villages stocked with police. For particularly far-flung episodes, it also has “the islands” — Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
Not bad if you’re an aspiring fiction writer, especially if you care to admit it.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.