7 Days  

The East Bay Express discovers plagiarism in its midst. The city of Oakland discovers revenue out on its streets.

Nostra culpa: In the wake of Jayson Blair's string of unethical behavior at The New York Times and our own recent stories about the Tri-State Defender plagiarizing an Express cover story lock, stock, and barrel, the timing couldn't be worse. This paper's editors have learned that at least a dozen recent capsule film reviews by our own editorial assistant were ethically problematic. The offending reviews appeared in the pages of the Express, but not on our Web site, between April 16 and May 14.

Editorial assistant Malka Geffen, who began working at the Express in late January, resigned of her own accord last week, effective immediately. Of the fifteen one-paragraph film synopses she wrote during her tenure, at least seven contained material lifted without attribution from identifiable online sources. The source of another five couldn't be easily pinned down, but these contained language suggesting Geffen had seen the film. She acknowledged that she hadn't seen any of the films in question.

For instance, a May 14 capsule review of Charlotte Sometimes that ran last week and bore Geffen's initials contained the passage: "The title character (Jacqueline Kim), who doesn't show up until the film is more than half over, offers many questions but little motivation to care about her mysterious nature. Of more interest is the other female lead (Eugenia Yuan), but her ill-conceived character provides little beyond the surface quirks." The identical passage appears in a BoxOffice.com review penned by Charles Martin, only with the words "lots of" instead of "many." (Charlotte Sometimes is reviewed fully in this week's issue.)

A review of Ishq Vishk by Taran Adarsh on IndiaFM.com states that the film "is straight out of Archie's. There's Veronica, there's Betty. Two girls loving the same guy. There's Jughead too, the confidant." Geffen's unsigned May 14 synopsis said: "Ishq Vishk is straight out of Archie's comics. There's a Veronica and a Betty: two girls loving the same guy. There's even a Jughead confidant."

In addition, a portion of the April 16 capsule review of The Bread, My Sweet apparently came from Roger Ebert's review of the film for the Chicago Sun-Times. And Geffen's capsule for The Real Cancun (April 23) ends with an opinionated barb that implies she saw the film. In fact, she had not.

Other problematic reviews included foreign films Sami, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Armaan, and Anbe Anbe, which contained verbatim or near-verbatim language from Web sites including www.rediff.com, IndiaVarta.com, and IndiaFM.com. The source material for reviews of Saathiya, Ek Aur Ek Gyarah, Bollywood/Hollywood, and The Hero was less clear, but again, the language suggested the writer had seen the films.

Normally, when Express critics haven't yet seen a new movie, the editorial assistant is asked to compile a short, neutral synopsis of the film based on promotional materials and other sources. These capsules are not true reviews, and should not imply that the writer has seen the movie. For instance, our entire March 5 synopsis of the film The Son simply said: "In Belgium's official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, a carpentry instructor at a teen rehab center refuses to take a new boy as his apprentice, yet takes to shadowing the kid both inside and outside of rehab."

Geffen, who holds a master's degree in English and creative writing from Mills College and whose résumé boasted significant prior editorial experience -- including stints with Urbanview, Curve, and Addison-Wesley Publishing -- said she was under the impression it was acceptable to cull reviews from online sources.

In an interview this week, Geffen, whose work was otherwise exemplary, said she simply was overwhelmed: "I had, like, five minutes to put these things together on a Monday, literally five minutes. There was no malicious intent. I only did it because I heard 'yes' when I asked whether it was okay. ... I was just doing what I was told."

Her predecessor, Stefanie Kalem, who is now assistant calendar editor, recalls directing Geffen to the Internet for basic story lines and general information, but says she made it clear that the capsules should be original and not include more than a cursory summary of the plot.

Express Editor Stephen Buel, Geffen's supervisor, typically reads the new capsule film reviews each week before publication. Buel says he failed to notice that Geffen was writing subjectively about films that she obviously had not seen, and concedes that the practice could have been detected and avoided if he had paid more attention to the film listings.

While any newsroom employee should know better than to crib someone else's work, the editors were remiss in not making certain everyone on their staff understood that. The Express wishes to extend an apology to its readers and anyone affected. We will take steps to ensure this episode is not repeated. -- The Editors


The $64 question: Last fall, the Oakland City Council heroically defeated a Public Works proposal to double fines for cars parked in street-sweeping zones from $32 to a whopping $64. At the time, councilmembers argued that the increase was too steep, that the zones sometimes made it hard to find parking in congested neighborhoods and, since some neighborhoods had been able to "opt-out" of the program completely and avoid street-sweeping hassles, that the increased fees would unfairly apply only to selected areas. Then-council candidate Jean Quan collected six hundred signatures opposing the fee increase. "I talked to one mother who said if she oversleeps and gets a ticket, $64 would be her grocery bill for the week," she told the Oakland Tribune. The council voted instead to raise the fine to $42. As is, that's $9 more than a street-sweeping ticket in San Francisco. That increase went into effect on January 1.

But last fall was last fall. And Oakland's garage-lacking, calendar-challenged oversleepers -- most of us, in other words -- still aren't safe from preposterously cruel and unusual parking fines. As the financially strapped city struggles to hammer out its 2003-2005 budget, the same $64 idea has resurfaced. Jayne Becker, assistant to City Manager Robert Bobb, says it's a matter of "balancing the budget." The proposed increase would raise an estimated $800,000 annually for the general fund, she says.

According to Becker, the city must consider things like jacking up ticket fees to resolve budget concerns. The cost of providing services, she says, has increased faster than revenues, and with ballot measures crippling the ability of local governments to raise local taxes, all that's left is for cities to raise fines and fees. (The latter, of course, are merely regressive local taxes.) The city council is slated to finalize the budget next month.

To be fair, street sweeping is more than simply a municipal cash cow. In 1987, the federal Clean Water Act was updated to include urban runoff as a major cause of water pollution. According to L.A. Wood, a member of Berkeley's Community Environmental Advisory Commission who has been lobbying that city to improve its street cleaning for more than a decade, the service is important because it prevents auto pollutants such as gas, oil, and metals from finding their way through storm drains and into the bay. The parked cars present a serious impediment. "The effectiveness of sweeping has to do with the ability of the sweeper to get to the gutter where 90 percent of the debris is," Wood says.

Oakland, for that matter, has a split personality on the impetus for a fee hike. The city manager's office sees it as a budget issue. But Ken Rayford, a supervisor in Oakland's Public Works department, says it isn't about the money. "From my perspective it has more to do with the problem of people not complying," he says.

Tom Mumley, a manager at the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, agrees with Rayford. "From a water-quality perspective, we have to get the cars off the curbs," he says. "Should we tolerate people parking where they shouldn't be? No!" Mumley adds that he once got a $270 ticket for parking in a bus zone, a fine that ensured he wouldn't make that mistake again.

Yet if fines reach the sum of 64 clams, and enough people decide they won't "make that mistake again," couldn't the city, which hands out nine thousand to twelve thousand tickets a month, actually lose money on the deal? That's a question for an economist, so we called one: What we're talking about here is price elasticity, says Martha Olney, an adjunct economics professor at Cal who figures the city will win on the deal. "Raising the fees won't make people who forget it's Wednesday morning remember that it's Wednesday morning," she says. "Some people will move their cars, but it won't be enough to lower revenue."

Raising the fees, however, may make the people who forgot they hated their local bureaucracy remember that they hate their local bureaucracy. -- Helene Blatter

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