A Step too Far

Kenneth Neill, publisher of Memphis magazine, insists: "We don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill." Still, it's not every day that a city magazine located hundreds of miles away from 43rd street finds itself tangling with The New York Times. On October 4th, the Times published a 2,500 word, front page article headlined, "An Oasis of Casinos Lifts a Poor Mississippi County." The story, written by veteran Times reporter John Kifner, was a thorough examination of how gambling has transformed Tunica County, Mississippi, one of the nation's poorest counties. Displaying customary snappiness, Kifner wrote that, with the billion-dollar-a-year gambling industry in place, "The slot machine may well have more impact here than any device since the cotton gin."A great line. Unfortunately, Kifner was not the first to write it. Several months before, a nearly identical sentence had run in a Memphis special report. In fact, several parts of Kifner's story -- ideas, quotes, arcane details -- appear to have been lifted out of the July/August issue of Memphis."First, I was flattered," says John Branston, editorial special projects director for Memphis, who spent two months reporting and writing the magazine's package. "Second, I was upset."no one suggests that Kifner relied entirely on Memphis: He traveled to Mississippi and conducted his own interviews. But the similarities were too glaring to ignore. In a statement released last week, Memphis said, "We would describe our overall contribution to the [itTimes story... as significant and unmistakable." Neither Kifner nor the editor of the story, Dean Baquet, returned repeated calls seeking comment.In addition to the cotton-gin line, Memphis points to this section of Kifner's piece: "Shea Leatherman...hoped to get a few million dollars, the story goes here, for land that had been worth less than a million. When the operators of Sam's Casino offered him $20 million in 1993, he kept a straight face and settled for $25 million. The casino took in $128 million in its first year."Compare that to the passage from Memphis: "[Shea] Leatherman hoped to get a few million dollars for a land that would have fetched them a million a year or two earlier. Instead Boyd [Gaming Corporation] offered $20 million. Leatherman and his agent somehow managed to keep a straight face and settled for $25 million. In its first full year of operation, Sam's Town Tunica had revenues of $128 million."That's not all: The Times used a citation from the annual report of casino operation Circus Circus that had been cited in Memphis, garbling a word in the process. The smoking gun: Kifner cited figures for how much profit per day certain slot machines took in, using numbers that Memphis had calculated itself.Branson, who say the Times story the day it appeared, says he wrote a personal letter to Kifner. They later spoke on the phone. "He was courteous and prompt about acknowledging my letter," Branston says, "but he was limited in what he could say. He said, 'There are channels for handling this.'"Those channels were activated when publisher Kenneth Neill sent a letter to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. (Ironically, the Times owns a television station in Memphis [WREG-TV} that uses the same law firm as Memphis magazine; Neill had to go through another attorney.)Neill declined to provide the Voice with copies of the letters that went back and forth between his lawyer and the Times, but said Times management was "gracious and fair." Finally, on November 5th, the Times ran an editor's note confessing that "the article was fully based on the Times' reporting and interviewing at the scene, but some avenues for the reporting were suggested by an article by John Branston in the July-August issue of Memphis." The publication of the note was local news; on Friday, the Memphis Commercial Appeal ran a story headlined, "N.Y. Times belatedly credits local writer."Branston describes himself as "generally satisfied" with the Times' handling of the affair. Publisher Neill adds: "All publications should be wary of this kind of thing, us included... There should be some systematic way of keeping this from happening, though I guess ultimately it rests with individuals."It is the individual who comprises the most mystifying part of the tale. Kifner is a gifted reporter who's written exceptional dispatches from wars in bosnia and the Persian Gulf. Times colleagues uniformly describe Kifner as hard-working and generous. Curiously, Kifner has not had a byline in the Times since October 5th, the day after the casino story ran.

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