Authors and Attribution

Via kottke.org, here’s a Columbia Journalism Review column that reprints email correspondence between writer Valerie Lawson, author of a richly-researched biography of Pamela Travers (author of Mary Poppins), and The New Yorker, which published a feature on Travers that, in Lawson’s judgment, failed properly to acknowledge Lawson’s earlier work. In the end, the two sides negotiated what amounts to a settlement: The New Yorker published a letter from Lawson that details earlier Travers biographies.

CJR notes that “[t]he exchange offers a glimpse at the sausage-factory aspect of how the magazine handles complaints, and raises interesting questions about what journalists owe, in terms of recognition, to their sources,” but it seems to me that it represents an interesting commentary on the broader question of “ownership” of “facts,” whether in a journalistic context or elsewhere. Read most broadly, Lawson’s emails suggest a proprietary claim in details of Travers’s life, though a claim that can be satisfied by attribution rather than cash. The New Yorker responds, predictably, with the notion that once freed by historians and biographers (including Lawson) “facts” about a subject’s life become, in effect, common property, free as the air, etc.

Whatever the merits of the two sides’s positions, one thing seems emerges clearly from the fog: Whatever remains of The New Yorker’s once-vaunted reputation for fact-checking lies crumpled on my floor, like a writer’s false start. I enjoy the magazine, but I don’t care about the brand. I read the writers.