When asked about Pittman’s reaction, Safina expressed surprise and suggested that far from appropriating Pittman’s work, he had given it new legs. “It’s not being passed off as mine,” he said. “It’s being referenced to him. I mean, how many people read the St. Petersburg Times? How many people know that article exists? I included his name, the title of the article, the publication, and the date [in an endnote]. Why would anybody be dismayed that his article has a little extra life by being incorporated into a book, when most people have totally forgotten that article?”
I asked Safina how many people would realistically turn to the back of the book and look up the endnote to find Pittman’s name. I suggested that a much fairer, more transparent, and more journalistically honest strategy would have been to include a brief, “according to an article by….” in the text itself.
“I agree with you. I could have done that,” Safina replied. “It is a matter of opinion as to whether it is fairer. I can tell you that there is nothing dishonest about anything in my approach or my intent in the book.”
In a follow-up e-mail, Safina stressed that, “for any referenced material that seems to you too close to verbatim for your comfort despite the endnote references (one person’s “too close” is another’s fidelity to source matter), there is a lot of material and a lot of wordcraft that is quite original.” He added, that he “often” did cite news outlets directly in the text, which is true, though it wasn’t often enough. At one point, he bases more than three whole pages of text on a series of interviews that Mike Williams, a crewmember on the Deepwater Horizon, gave to CBS’s 60 Minutes talking about his escape from the burning platform. It’s a captivating narrative, one that others writing about the spill, including Antonia Juhasz, used. But in her book, Black Tide, Juhasz explains in the text that the story came from an interview with 60 Minutes. In over three pages, Safina couldn’t find the space.
“There are other considerations that are on my mind while I am writing,” he said when I asked about Juhasz’s approach. “One is I feel like I am mainly working for the reader, and if the look of the text seems like it’s going to get burdened with extra quotes, or extra attributions, or will break a sense of trying to put the reader in the scene and create a mood, that factors into what strokes I am trying to either point on or not put on the page.”
Glusman, the vice president and executive editor at Crown Books, made a similar point about the stylistic decision to forgo footnotes in his letter to Nature.
Still, it’s fair to assume that most reporters would rather be referenced directly in the text. They work hard and they deserve the credit. I take Safina at his word when he says that he “was trying to be a honest broker and trying to be fair to the sources,” but it’s not hard to understand why hard-working journalists like Mascarelli and Pittman would take umbrage at the way he appropriated their work.
Heavy lifting from news articles has a long history in nonfiction book writing, and Safina is not the only author to have relied too heavily upon it under deadline, but it has grown much more common in the digital age, with blogs and websites of all sorts re-posting the primary reporting of professional news outlets. It has also grown easier to catch, however, and in the business, journalists still use an old-fashioned expression when criticizing this type of cut-and-paste work.
Safina’s book may have a lot of admirable qualities—including wry criticism of the government and the oil industry’s response to the Gulf oil spill—but too much of it “smells like glue.”