AUGUST 20, 2011
Photograph: Twin Roads No Guitar (detail) © Andrew Schneider
SO, I FIND MYSELF WONDERING, what am I going to do about the man who I think plagiarized me?
Sue him? I’ve bleated to a few lawyers. Humiliate him in front of his editor? I’ve written her. Shame him? I’m writing this.
My anger has the evanescence of an ephemeral stream. It dries up, then it comes gushing up in a basement two blocks away.
This case of seeping choler started on a hot Wednesday night in late June. I’d just spent the afternoon doing what non-fiction writers do: being bored witless in the line of duty, in this instance at a Sediment Management Meeting at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. I’d stopped at Vroman’s in Pasadena to pick up a few on-call volumes about the history of the Los Angeles County Flood Control Division. There’d been this hanging commitment to write a round-up of water books for a certain publication (initials L.A.R.B.), so I also stopped by the Environment section to check out the shelves.
Oh! There’s that new water book by Julia Child’s nephew. There had been posts on various water blogs. I couldn’t remember, but I wondered if, as a member of the water news echo chamber, I hadn’t tweeted a recent appearance of his on The Daily Show?
I stared at his name. Alex Prud’homme. That’s French-sounding. A couple of years ago, a producer from a company called Participant Media had come to my house asking for contacts for subjects of a five-part series that I’d written as a freelancer for the Las Vegas Sun. My 2008 series was about a Mulholland-worthy water grab that’s been in the works over in Nevada for more than two decades. This producer wanted contacts for my sources, and a chat. By way of bona fides, she said that Participant made An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc. They might need me as an interviewee. Or consultant. They’d have to see. One never knew. Their film was adapting a book by … I forgot the name as soon as she said it, other than recalling that it sounded French.
Little me? In a movie by the Al Gore people? I gave them whatever they wanted, chiefly an introduction to the whistleblower hydrologist central to my series of articles.
They didn’t call back.
Standing in Vroman’s, holding The Ripple Effect, it seemed likely that this was the book that Participant was adapting. Sure enough, there was a Vegas chapter. The first page was dutiful enough. Prud’homme’s out looking at Lake Mead, which is at such a low ebb that Nevada had recently signed a shortage-sharing agreement between it and rival southwest states on the Colorado River.
There’s a poor word choice on Vegas being the “chief beneficiary” from Mead (that would be California), but otherwise proficient, I thought. Then I got to the next page.
Neither of us were the first to point out that Nevada is the driest state in the nation, lying as it does behind the rain shadow of the Sierra. Lots of people have described the crashing course of the Colorado River from its headwaters in the Rockies to its now desiccated delta in Mexico. Passing Reclamation 101 requires being able to recite the apportionments that resulted from the Colorado Compact.
But once the guy with the French-sounding name got on to the history of Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy and her gambling industry mentor, a man named Richard Bunker, I felt queasy.
My Las Vegas Sun commission required that I tell the story of a Chinatown-style water grab in five parts using no more than five main characters. That, in turn, required tracing the story back to Richard Bunker, the former Clark County manager, Gaming Control Board head, casino lobbyist, and one hell of a good Mormon who, more than any other single man, hardwired Vegas to be able to get what it wanted, whether that be water, gaming-friendly zoning laws, or tax breaks.
Bunker is the investigator who (in the days immortalized by the movie “Casino”) cleared Harry Reid of any mob connections. Together, Bunker and Reid became the crime-busters who in the early 1980s gave Frank Sinatra back his gaming license. Bunker is the one who set up a young freshman lobbyist named Pat Mulroy to become Vegas’s water manager — vaulting her over a former head of the US Bureau of Reclamation, no less. Reid was the one, with Bunker and Mulroy, to help get the necessary federal permitting of the pipeline central to Vegas’s water grab — a pipeline planned to extend 300 miles north to the feet of Nevada’s only national park — through the United States Congress.
Bunker, Mulroy, and Reid became characters 1, 2, and 3 for my series.
Bunker, Mulroy, and Reid also make it into Prud’homme’s book in similar, if less vivid, contexts, but occasionally in very close to the same language.
Mulroy was so capable that Bunker quickly promoted her to lobbyist for Clark County, working the halls of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City. She drafted and then politically finessed legislation creating the public administrator’s office. (If you die intestate in Clark County, your heirs will find out what this office does.) This was most definitely not wild, but it taught her how to turn ideas into laws.
Mulroy proved so effective that she was sent to Carson City to lobby for Clark County before the state legislature. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it taught her how to create legislation and get it passed.
That wasn’t what made my blood boil. That moment came on seeing Prud’homme’s scene-setting.
Las Vegas lies at the intersection of three deserts. To the west is the Mojave, to the south the Sonoran, and to the north the Great Basin. The Sonoran Desert marries California, Arizona, and Mexico. The Mojave is largely a Californian desert that spills into Southern Nevada. Both are known as “hot” deserts, names that make more sense when it is 120 degrees in the summer than 10 below freezing on a winter night. Rains do come, but so rarely that the Sonoran’s saguaro cactuses and the Mojave’s Joshua trees have become international symbols of stoicism. North of Las Vegas, the Great Basin Desert begins. It too is largely dry, but this is a “cold desert.” Its altitudes are higher, its winters longer and colder, and its valleys are fed largely by snowmelt. The Great Basin Desert covers most of Nevada and relaxes eastward across the Utah border to claim the oldest stretches of Mormon country.
Las Vegas sits at the intersection of three deserts. To the south is the Sonoran, to the west is the Mojave, and to the north lies the Great Basin. The Sonoran and Mojave are “hot” deserts, where the temperature can rise to 120 degrees on a summer day, and fall to 10 below zero on a winter night. The Great Basin, which covers most of Nevada and part of Utah, is a “cold” desert surrounded by snowy peaks. During the spring snowmelt, those peaks release billions of gallons of water into the carbonate aquifers of the Great Basin, a vast endorheic watershed (one that doesn’t flow to the sea) that extends between the Wasatch Mountains to the east, to the Sierra Nevada to the west, and from Utah into Nevada.
Endorheic, indeed. How’s the following for not draining naturally from one place to another?
There was so much native ground water in early Las Vegas that not only did boys swim in springs, but according to Florence Lee Jones’ classic Water: The History of Las Vegas, homeowners routinely left town with their sprinklers running… Who knew that the local springs would be pumped dry? As it turned out, a succession of state engineers knew. By the 1950s, the valley had been pumped so hard that the ground was caving in beneath Nellis Air Force Base. Just as the golf courses began cropping up around casinos, the Strip had been pumped to capacity. … It was 1962, the same year the springs stopped flowing to the surface.
The springs at Las Vegas had so much natural water pressure that they were said to erupt from the earth “in geysers.” [No source for quotation]. In the first half of the twentieth century, enough water was in the aquifers beneath Las Vegas that kids swam in the springs and lawn sprinklers were ubiquitous. But as the city expanded, groundwater levels dipped. By the 1950s, the water beneath the valley had been pumped out so thoroughly that the land began to subside, and parts of Neillis Air Force Base caved in. The hotels and casinos and golf courses that came to define Las Vegas proliferated, but most of the springs had run dry by 1962.
Prud’homme doesn’t footnote either the Bunker or Reid sections of the Sun series. He claims this is serendipity.
Before Reid became a senator, Nevada had every class of federal land except a national park. In 1986, in his next to last year as a congressman, Reid changed that… . Others had tried during the previous 60 years… . Wheeler Peak … had the kinds of attractions it takes to achieve park status: Lehman Caves, a Tiffany’s of stalagmites and stalactites, and bristlecone pines, gnarly trees older than the pyramids. … In 1985, Reid took up the cause for a park. The Sierra Club backed it. So did urban romantics.
In 1985, Reid helped to promote Great Basin National Park, a seventy-seven-thousand-acre preserve famous for the Lehman Caves and ancient stands of bristlecone pine. The park had been debated for sixty years; Nevada had no national park, and Reid was determined to fix that. He had the support of a wide coalition of environmentalists and urbanites.
It took him little time to introduce characters 4 and 5 from my Sun series. Character 4 was no secret. Dean Baker has been giving tours of the local springs around his ranch to anyone who might write or film or say something negative about Las Vegas since Pat Mulroy moved on his water in 1989. But Dean Baker’s back story with the Great Basin National Park was not well-trodden territory outside of a rare little book, The Great Basin Drama, which prompted me to push Baker on it, and which Prud’homme doesn’t cite.
I cheated for my fifth character and used three men, all former US Geological Survey scientists: John Bredehoeft, Tim Durbin and Terry Katzer. They not only knew how the idea for the Vegas pipeline originated, they also were uniquely poised to appreciate the damage that it would ultimately inflict on valleys that were pumped.
In the 1980s, when ground around wells in the Las Vegas Valley had collapsed in feet, not inches, from pumping, geologist Terry Katzer got an idea. He was in the Nevada office of the Geological Survey, one of the many western research outposts then overseen by John Bredehoeft. He asked Bredehoeft: Could Great Basin ground water be moved south to Las Vegas? Not without mining, Bredehoeft responded.
In the mid-1980s, when many of the wells in the Las Vegas valley began to go dry, a USGS groundwater specialist named Terry Katzer had a brain flash: what if Las Vegas could tap into the aquifers beneath the sparsely inhabited valleys of the Great Basin Desert?
Tim Durbin helped Katzer and Pat Mulroy get the pipeline scheme underway, but then had a fit of conscience while appearing before the State Engineer of Nevada.
Protesters braced themselves for a Las Vegas retort to Durbin’s appearance. There was none. The strategy all along had been to keep Durbin’s concerns off the record. Now that he’d had his day in court, they were not about to call attention to it.
To his [Durbin’s] surprise, [Pat Mulroy’s agency] hardly reacted. Only later did he realize why: they had already gotten what they wanted — approval to pump water from the valleys — and had no incentive to call attention to his damming projections.
It’s unbecoming to swear in the Environment aisle at Vroman’s. After I got home and began comparing his text to my series, I found thirteen instances of same or similar language.
Is this a big deal? The offending passages are in just one chapter of a very long book. I’d only told a Nevada story; Prud’homme set out to address “the fate of fresh water in the twenty-first century.” As anger ebbs and flows through my veins, I don’t know what I want from Prud’homme. There is no right response and there are plenty of wrong ones, including the one that I made after getting home from Vroman’s, which was to send him a drunken message via his website to the effect that I owned the book rights and I’d already been screwed by the Sun, which hadn’t wanted to publish it because it was too critical of Vegas, and that I’d lost whatever I might have made on it in a legal fight with them forcing them to publish.
My kingdom for a breathalyzer for my computer. That is not entirely true. I was screwed quite differently, first and most notably by myself. I thought satisfying the Sun commission for a character-driven five-part, big-read treatment of the Vegas pipeline story required knowing the whole story, which meant months and months of work. I took so long to research and write the series that the managing editor refused to pay the bill when he saw it in late December 2007. When I moved to take the reporting elsewhere, the paper threatened to sue me. Before our lawyers parted four months later, the Sun printed an editorial saying the paper had thoroughly researched the subject and the pipeline would not harm ranchers. Knowing that its editor was sitting on evidence to the contrary, I began compulsively watching Law & Order. It didn’t matter that it was fictional. Like so many Americans, I needed a more just world than the one I actually inhabit.
As a contract was struck to define our respective rights, and the Sun and I went into production on the series, there were no fewer than 26 edits of the final whistleblower chapter, each one querying afresh if I had been unfair to Las Vegas’s water speculators and partial to the case of the rural protestors. By the time I finished more than a month of fact-checking and emerged from the long edit, I’d lost my shirt. When the story finally ran in June 2008, the ambitious architecture and scrupulous line and copy-editing wasn’t mine — it was by editors on the Sun‘s news side. The paper also invested heavily in superb graphics and photography. But the reporting was mine, the perfectionism was mine. The 25,000-word piece had no corrections. My reward was walking away with ownership of the research and the right to use the series in a book.
I’ve yet to capitalize on the book rights and wondered, on seeing Prud’homme’s book, if I wasn’t mad at my own procrastination. I told an agent that I’d get her a book proposal, but didn’t. The Vegas story was still in play. Perhaps in small part because of the Sun series; in 2009, Vegas was stripped of awards for the pipeline from three valleys. The following year, all thanks to a due process lawsuit by protestors, it then lost all the pipe’s water. Mulroy will begin making her case again in the Nevada state capital in late September.
Prud’homme responded to my drunken e-mail saying, “as a former fact-checker, and a writer who attempts to be as scrupulous as possible, I am sensitive to issues of accuracy and attribution.” He’d been in Nevada before my series, he said, interviewed Mulroy repeatedly, toured Lake Mead, been up north to Baker ranch. “I give your reporting full credit, both in the text and in the footnotes,” he wrote.
The use of the word “footnotes” is innocent, but he doesn’t actually use them. Footnotes fell out of fashion around the time the NBA adopted the three-point shot. According to one of my favorite chroniclers of the American West, historian Michael S. Green, scholars now use “endnotes,” or merely “notes” interchangeably with footnotes, but Green (no relation) wonders if old-fashioned footnotes might not be “blunter” and “more clear.”
Reporters who find their work “noted” in books would probably agree. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Whose line is it, anyway?” canvassed various reporters about seeing their reporting reprised in a book, Carl Safina’s A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout. Safina argued that endnotes in a book might drive readers back to old newspaper accounts. But in some cases this is even more unlikely than it is in general: one freelance writer told CJR that her work for the science journal Nature was credited in the Safina book to an un-bylined internet re-posting of her Nature story by the Hindustan Times.
“Safina covers his flank with his endnotes,” concluded the CJR piece.
But they are weak and insufficient given the close re-writes of some the sourced articles. Moreover, it’s doubtful readers will bother to look at the endnotes, so they would never know that most of his book rides on the hard work of others.
Hear, hear. Nonetheless, I wonder if the finer points of accreditation aren’t the least of a newspaper reporter’s problems these days. Reporters rarely own copyright of a published newspaper article, even when it’s a massive effort. The upshot? At the very points where Prud’homme’s language and mine were the most similar, only the Las Vegas Sun and — hilariously — Prud’homme now can claim copyright.
Prud’homme dismisses my complaints as being “without merit.” “In most of these [examples],” he responded, “the same or similar facts are disclosed but the expression is different. Where expression is similar it is because as a general matter, facts are often stated in an obvious way.” Michael Green is familiar with this argument. Being a scholar of 19th century American history, the first case to pop into his mind involved historian Stephen Oates, who was chased through the terrifying halls of academe over the supposed lifting of choice phrases in a book on Lincoln. Oates got so badly savaged over his ironically titled With Malice Towards None that I not only felt his pain, I felt compelled to seriously consider his defense. “Oates’s argument was that there was inevitability,” Green said, “that if you wanted, for example, to write ‘Lincoln went to church,’ there were only so many ways to state it.”
By this definition, I certainly wasn’t plagiarized. Rather, example after example, similarly stated facts were simply ushered into the Church of Inevitability. To illustrate this, Prud’homme responded to only one example, my challenge over “Las Vegas lies at the intersection of three deserts.”
“You and I use similar phrasing in the opening line,” he wrote, “because it is a common, economical way to state the facts. The description of high desert, cold desert, temperatures, etc. is readily available online.” To underscore his point, he supplied Wikipedia links for the Sonoran, Mojave and Great Basin deserts, along with another internet address for a sixth grade science website called “Blue Planet Biomes.”
Leaving aside that the people’s encyclopedia doesn’t place Las Vegas at the center of any of its desert entries in order to propel a specific story forwards, the surprise here is that Wikipedia is offered as a source. I did use the website of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for help, but my description sprang from a joint recommendation from College of Southern Nevada botanist David Charlet and University of Las Vegas Nevada biologist Jim Deacon to overlay a map of the region with another map breaking down its floristic provinces, thus to let the plants and animals show me the water.
But maybe Prud’homme is right that Wikipedia facts are enough. Flying to Vegas, driving an hour to Deacon’s far-off suburban house, struggling to assimilate the ways he and Charlet told me to look at the desert, it all might have been a huge waste of time. The pathologically forensic science writer Gary Taubes can get away with snarling at editors, “Do you want it fast, or do you want it good?” But for most journalists, with lineage shrinking to 1970 rates, speed is of the essence.
I move as slowly as climate change. Utah and Nevada were on fire the summer of 2007. Navigating blazes, I drove from town to town interviewing council members and piecing together old family connections of the “characters.” Often I had to wait because they had lost a herd of cattle to the flames or were up in the hills working the fire lines in the pinon pines. I chased Harry Reid to Washington, back to Nevada and through three counties before I could get an interview with him. I went to Arizona and Utah to hear what their water managers had to say about Vegas. I ordered expensive transcripts of Vegas water hearings before the state engineer, pored over the testimony, tracked down the scientist whose nervous gibberish seemed to be hiding something, read countless papers about the physics of groundwater, flew hundreds of miles to convince said hydrologist to stand up to a Vegas water district that had paid him roughly a million dollars, and then fought to get the story in a paper that didn’t necessarily want to publish it.
Prud’homme claims to have got the back story of the three hydrologist characters from a rancher and have confirmed it with an unnamed source. Looking at Prud’homme’s chapter, reading his itinerary, I’m guessing that even if he had stopped to master blackjack and drop acid at Red Rock, his location work in Nevada should have taken no more than a week.
An editor of mine likens my situation to that of geographer Blake Gumprecht when Gumprecht found a string of similarities between his 1999 book The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth and the 2003 New York Times story “Los Angeles by Kayak” by Charlie LeDuff. The nature and scale of the borrowing are similar. However, the outcomes of Gumprecht’s challenge to the Times and mine to Simon & Schuster could not be more different. A week after the LeDuff story ran, The New York Times appended this apology: “Although the facts in those passages were confirmed independently — through other sources or the reporter’s firsthand observation — the article should have acknowledged the significant contribution of Mr. Gumprecht’s research.” By contrast, Simon & Schuster’s deputy general counsel responded to my complaint, “Frankly we are at a loss to understand what exactly it is you are complaining about.”
Unlike book publishers, newspapers routinely publish corrections. It’s what puts the honor in the credo “journalism is the rough draft of history.” (Do I need to say that Washington Post publisher Philip Graham first said that? Probably not, because as a Slate piece pointed out last summer, he didn’t. It goes back to a 1943 New Republic piece and may well predate that.)
The problem with that well-chiseled utterance is that just as it has attained the universal status of fact, it’s steadily becoming untrue. The information age dawned with the mass firing of information gatherers. I have spent my adult life working for newspapers. The early Independent where I started in London is now a fragment of what was when it was briefly the paper of record in Great Britain. Since I joined the Los Angeles Times in 1999, roughly half of the staff has gone. The picture is the same across all the titles owned by the Tribune Co., be it at the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Hartford Courant, or Orlando Sentinel. Axes have also swung at McClatchy, Gannett, the Washington Post, and even the New York Times. Late in 2009, in spite of a recent public service Pulitzer, roughly a third of the staff of the Las Vegas Sun was cut. This week, the Sun‘s rival paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, canned an unspecified number of veteran staff, with a tentative count now numbering in the dozens.
Like global warming, the effects of our media meltdown are as unpredictable as they are frightening. As the Nevada Supreme Court struck down all the Vegas pipeline water awards in early 2010, the Sun was reduced to phoning me in Los Angeles to ask if I’d cover it. The paper, owned by one of Southern Nevada’s leading property developers, no longer had an environment correspondent. It still doesn’t, though this didn’t stop its editorial board from this summer once again endorsing the pipeline.
Here in Los Angeles, the situation is also grave. To use an example from my beat, Nevada didn’t invent the modern American water grab. California did, with the Chandler family’s Los Angeles Times an essential tool. Few dispute that David Halberstam was right in arguing that after 1960, Otis Chandler transformed the Times from a Chinatown-era bully pulpit into a great American newspaper. Had Halberstam lived, who knows what the author of The Powers That Be would have made of the paper’s last decade under the ownership of the Tribune Co.? A decade ago, a sordid scheme to sap an aquifer in San Bernardino County near the Mojave National Preserve was beaten back, in large part because of reporting by a once-formidable environment desk at the Times. Today, while the backer of the same plan consorts openly with the mayor of Los Angeles and former Governor Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, the project is progressing through what passes for government review. The Times, prostrate on a bankruptcy court’s operating table, is no longer dogging the story.
Ironically, the person with the most journalistic values in the Sun saga wasn’t a reporter, or “author,” or newspaper proprietor, but a scientist. The whistleblower hydrologist missed no opportunity to stress that his only motive in speaking to me was to daylight his data. Tim Durbin could live with wrecking the Great Basin to pump its water to Las Vegas, he said. What he couldn’t do was continue to suppress the facts. The public, he insisted, should be allowed to choose between more casinos and suburbs and a rural wasteland. “It’s a value judgment,” he said.
We all make value judgments every day. I made mine, Prud’homme made his. Media moguls make theirs. I worked slowly and he worked fast. He beat me to press in book form on the Vegas story. Am I jealous? Yes. Is this sour grapes? Yes again. Is Prud’homme largely competent, honest, and kind to children? I have no idea. Probably. He’s related to Julia Child. But reporting, especially reporting western water, is hard, expensive, and increasingly rare. Scant reworking of something you find on the internet, then protecting that act by invoking the rules of the Church of Inevitability is easy, cheap, and increasingly common.
As slow reporting falls through the trapdoors of corporate America, I am reduced to wondering: Who eventually will inform us? Who will fill up our new Internet oracles? Who, exactly, will be updating the rough draft of history?