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By Kelsey McClure
Corrections and clarifications on page A2 of the Post-Dispatch usually appear after minor miscues. On June 19, one item appeared a bit serious, but few reading it would have suspected the machinations that apparently went on behind the scenes before this "clarification" was printed.
It seems that the P-D's Jerry Berger -- yes, yes, it's him again -- had used a quote in his June 13 column from local high-rolling lawyer Paul Passanante. Turns out that, according to the clarification, the "Berger Bit" "should have cited the June 11 edition of Missouri Lawyers Weeklyas the source of Passanante's quote." In other words, the Bergermeister had passed off the quote as something he -- or someone working on his behalf -- had heard when in fact it had been lifted from a Missouri Lawyers Weekly piece published two days before the Postcolumn.
Some might call that plagiarism, but it wasn't in the same league as the Boston Globe's Mike Barnicle reprinting George Carlin-isms as if they were his own. For that and another plagiarism case, Barnicle was fired. The Passanante quote was fairly inane, but, still, it was lifted from another publication.
Ken Jones, editor of Missouri Lawyers Weekly,also was miffed that the day after the unattributed mention in Berger's column, the P-D ran a brief article on the same topic, the filing of a federal lawsuit by seven convicted rapists seeking DNA testing as part of the national Innocence Project. Neither the article in the Post's "Law & Order" section nor Berger's column mentioned that Jones' publication had run an article on that subject, written by Geri Dreiling, in its June 11 edition. The unsuspecting reader in both cases might think that Berger had been working a room somewhere and talked to Passanante and that diligent Post reporters plying their craft found out about the lawsuits and wrote them up. Wrong on both counts.
So Jones alerted the home office of Lawyers Weekly Inc. in Boston, which contacted the P-Dfor a correction, and the games began. After some back-and-forth with the Post-Dispatch editors about what had happened, things got strange. Jones says Passanante, while driving back from Jefferson City, called on his cell phone to tell him that if the demand for a correction wasn't dropped, Berger's column would be used to rain retribution on Passanante. In this case, retribution might mean a series of catty "sightems" and sour "Berger Bits."
Jones say the threats came not from Berger or Post management but from omnipresent public-relations whiz Richard Callow.
Jones says Passanante called "and said, 'I need to talk to you about the issue about the Berger column, because I got a call from Richard Callow telling me to back off from having the Postissue a clarification or an attribution to you guys. Callow said to me, 'If the Post winds up having to issue a clarification, then my name' -- this is Passanante talking -- 'my name is never going to appear in Berger's column again, unless in an unfavorable light.' "
Passanante prefers to take the Pontius Pilate approach to the whole deal now, but he does not refute Jones' comments. Apprised of Jones' version of what happened, Passanante issues a five-paragraph statement that includes this sentence: "Ken Jones and Geri Dreiling are not only excellent journalists, they are honest people of great integrity." No such description for Berger and Callow, who are only referred to as a "widely-read columnist" and a "brilliant public relations consultant," respectively.
That said, Passanante wants to extricate himself from the charge and countercharge. "When I found out that Missouri Lawyers Weeklyintended to make a big deal out of Jerry Berger's failure to give them credit for the quote, I spoke to Ken Jones, Geri Dreiling, Richard Callow and Jerry Berger," Passanante wrote. "I begged all of them to just forget about this. Apparently Missouri Lawyers Weeklywould not forget about it. These are all very talented people. Unfortunately, mistakes sometimes happen. In this instance, Jerry Berger made an innocent mistake. The Post-Dispatchacknowledged that. It's water under the bridge. No useful purpose would be served by further comment by me."
The more Jones thought about it, the more he realized that the "follow" story by the Postin the "Law & Order" section wasn't nearly as annoying as the mention in Berger's column and the threat by Callow.
"Initially it was the 'Law & Order' thing that made me call my VP for communications," says Jones. "But thinking about the ethics of it, if the Postchecked out everything, it's a poaching, but it's nothing more than that. But the Berger thing was a blatant lifting without attribution. And if what Passanante told me actually happened -- and I've got no reason to think it didn't -- then it's just a blatant violation of journalistic ethics."
Callow admits meeting with Passanante before the quote in question surfaced in Berger's column, but he's hazy on the details. "I don't remember what Paul gave me," says Callow. "I do know Paul came to visit me and told me that and several other really good stories, which I passed out to people who I thought would like them." Callow lives in a world where information -- and "really good stories" -- is the coin of the realm.