Departed Strib film critic disputes plagiarism charge

Colin Covert
Colin Covert who recently resigned as Star Tribune film critic after the newspaper found he had committed what it called an ethical breach by using "distinct phrasing" from other writers.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Sitting in a south Minneapolis coffee shop on Wednesday, Colin Covert said he's doing well, despite recent events.

Just two days earlier, the Star Tribune had announced Covert's resignation after determining he'd committed an ethics breach by using what it called "distinctive phrasing" lifted from other writers' work.

"I leave with only a sense of gratitude to the Star Tribune, which gave me the opportunity to build an amazingly fulfilling career and put me in contact with the most important filmmakers of the last several decades," he said.

The Star Tribune began investigating his work after a reader pointed out that Covert used a phrase from a 1974 piece by the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael in a review he wrote in 2009. Covert confirmed that he did.

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"I think you can certainly make a very convincing case that I was borrowing without attribution work that was done by a writer much superior to me. Far, far, far, far better than me," he said. "And all I can do is look at it and say, clearly, I was not on my 'A' game that day."

In its investigation the Star Tribune found several similar examples, describing the use of what it called "distinct phrasing from other authors without attribution" as "a form of plagiarism" and a violation of the newspaper's journalistic standards and ethics. The paper removed all of Covert's work from its website and informed wire services and other publications that distribute Star Tribune material of the situation.

"Although I don't entirely agree with all of their decisions, I respect their decisions. So I don't challenge it," Covert said. "They did it for reasons that seemed appropriate to them. I wrote the work for them and they get to do with it whatever they want."

However, Covert said he doesn't think what he did was plagiarism. He said plagiarism is wrong, and his own work has been republished on several occasions under other people's bylines. What he was doing, he said, constitutes fair use of the material, which does not harm the original and comes under freedom of expression.

"If you were to borrow a few words, is that the same as borrowing an entire piece?" he said. "It doesn't seem like it is. And that's a habit that I developed over the years. I would find an interesting turn of phrase, a witticism or something like that, and if I was applying it not to something that was identical to the subject that I was borrowing from but something was a distant cousin at best, it seemed to me like it didn't matter. It was no big deal."

Covert said there is no standard definition of plagiarism, and what may be acceptable at one publication is an egregious ethical breach at another. He said that over three decades as a film critic at the Star Tribune he wrote more than 6,000 pieces, and the investigation only found problems with a few of them.

"I am sorry, but there is not much that's nefarious here," he said. "Sorry to disappoint, it's not that interesting a story. But in truth, that's how it feels to me."

But after decades at the paper, Covert said, it feels like time to move on. He wishes it had happened under happier circumstances, but he has projects to keep him busy. He's producing a documentary that he says will be out soon, and in 2020 he will travel to Italy to do presentations on the centenary of the birth of the director Federico Fellini.

He said he hopes for one development from the current situation, however.

"I've spoken with the Newspaper Guild, which represents reporters at the paper, and reached out to management to encourage them to set up a Plagiarism 101 seminar which they will present at least annually and keep people up to date," he said.

The Star Tribune referred a request for comment to the statement from Editor Rene Sanchez published in the paper Monday.

Covert's departure leaves some in the film community worried. He was the sole full-time film critic at either of the Twin Cities' daily papers. A champion of all kinds of movies, Covert produced work that was distributed nationally.