WNYC, seeking to end a crisis, may have sparked another

In early March, CJR published a story about turmoil at WNYC, which mentioned allegations of unattributed language in stories by Jami Floyd, one of the station’s star names. 

Since then, the story has developed in ways that have further frustrated the newsroom and drawn the attention of other news outlets. Interviews with current and former staffers, and internal documents, have provided a snapshot of that process. 

The day that our story was published, Audrey Cooper—WNYC’s editor in chief—and Floyd addressed editors in a meeting, according to a person familiar with the matter who did not want to be named for fear of losing their job. 

Shortly after CJR had raised the issues with the new stories, Cooper had taken most of them down “because they appear to have borrowed sentences and phrases from other media outlets and other sources,” she said. Floyd added that these were her stories. “This is my worst mistake ever, but I challenge anyone to get to the age of forty without having made some mistakes in their professional or personal life,” she said. (According to her Wikipedia page, Floyd is fifty-seven.) 

Cooper also discussed an investigation into further violations of WNYC editorial standards, prompted by CJR’s reporting, according to the station. Floyd was evidently displeased. “So now, for some reason, we’re digging around for stories going way back in time. Why is that happening? That’s my question that I want all of you, as leaders in this newsroom, to ask yourselves,” Floyd said. 

Then, last Friday, WNYC released an initial statement announcing that forty-one articles were being removed from WNYC.org and four from Gothamist.com due to the discovery of unattributed passages or because “stories were published on other websites by the author.” It did not make clear that one person was behind all forty-five articles—which staff members worried gave the impression that plagiarism was widespread in the newsroom. 

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Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, a publicity director for WNYC, said in an email that the “problematic stories” were removed quickly and that the organization had been transparent with the audience “about the extent of the problem.” She also said WNYC had provided staff with “months of ethics trainings” and is working with Trusting News to “rewrite editorial guidelines.”  

After objections from other staffers, WNYC updated its statement to clarify that there was a “single author” behind the stories, all published between 2010 and 2021. Floyd, according to documents reviewed by CJR, and newsroom accounts, was that author. (The New York Post first reported on Floyd’s involvement last night; it was also reported in The Fine Print.) But before that could be announced, and the taint removed from her colleagues, she left her position. Cooper told the newsroom that she did not know Floyd was going to depart. 

Houlihan Roussel wrote that WNYC had planned to conclude the investigation on Monday and that “the person involved was presented with preliminary findings” and “had been notified by HR that there would be serious disciplinary action.” She added: “They are now no longer employed by WNYC.” WNYC declined to provide Cooper for an interview.

Shortly afterward, in association with a crisis PR firm called Reputation Doctor, Floyd released a statement announcing a press conference on Tuesday morning at the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan. “Some have talked about major issues at WNYC for years,” the statement said. “Some have even allegedly used the word toxic. But at this press conference Jami Floyd will highlight major allegations she experienced herself during her recent employment at WNYC that others have been too afraid to go public with.” 

In a meeting at WNYC later that day, Cooper and an HR representative still declined to name the author of the forty-five stories at issue. “You’re protecting the person who plagiarized,” one person present said. “You’re protecting yourselves. And in doing so you’re directly choosing to not protect the people in this newsroom.”

Another person asked how WNYC could be confident that editorial violations did not occur on air. “We did a spot check and didn’t find anything,” Cooper said. CJR reviewed two on-the-record examples, in which Floyd appeared on the air using highly similar phrases to articles from other news organizations including NBC News, SCOTUSBlog, and Mother Jones. In response, Houlihan Roussel wrote that WNYC is “in the process of reviewing what was aired. Because of the technical difficulties of this and the time period involved, it takes considerably more time than reviewing text documents.”

Mike Paul, Floyd’s spokesperson and the CEO of Reputation Doctor, said, in response to an email, that “many of these alleged stories had a team, including senior editors and editor in chief working on them.” He added, “Please be very careful with your language as our defamation attorney will be reviewing anything you write about Ms. Floyd.”

On Tuesday morning, Floyd showed up at her press conference, wrapped up in a scarf and flanked by her PR representative and a lawyer, on the sidewalk outside the courthouse. The conference was interrupted at times by pedestrians whom Paul shushed or redirected around the sparse group of about eight people in attendance.  

I asked Floyd if she had a comment about the accusations of serially unattributed language online. Paul answered for her, explaining Floyd had not seen the instances WNYC cited in its statement. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Floyd added.

WNYC said, in direct response to Floyd’s words, but without naming her, that Floyd “was shown seven examples of unattributed words and phrases” and was told “that the full findings of the investigation would be presented this week.”

At the press conference, Floyd outlined her plans to sue for “race discrimination, gender discrimination, age discrimination, retaliatory workplace harassment, defamation, and violation of my civil rights.” 

WNYC said it was “reviewing Ms. Floyd’s statements today and will fully investigate them as appropriate.”

 

Update: “We believe employees, readers, and listeners deserve transparency and accountability from NYPR,” the station’s union members said in a statement. “We hope that the company explains why it took months to fully investigate dozens of cases of plagiarism on its platforms.”

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Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR.

TOP IMAGE: Jami Floyd's press conference. (YouTube)