Plagiarism Suspected At Newspaper Owned By Legislator

And that’s not the only ethical issue – relating to journalism, and government – confronting the Desplaines Valley News, led by state Sen. Steve Landek.

State Sen. Steve Landek (left) and Mark Hornung (right) / Illinois General Assembly and Chicago Sun-Times

Mark Hornung, who resigned as the Chicago Sun-Times’ editorial page editor in the 1990s after it came to light he plagiarized an opinion piece, is now helping run a suburban newspaper with an influential state senator, Steve Landek.

And their weekly community paper – the century-old Desplaines Valley News – is facing the same troubling question that led to Hornung’s Sun-Times departure: Did an editorial writer commit a cardinal sin of journalism, and violate the public trust, by copying somebody else’s writing or reporting?

The Better Government Association found 14 recent Desplaines Valley News editorials that included similar or exact wording as previously published content in 11 other publications, including the Washington Post – the same paper Hornung plagiarized while at the Sun-Times.

The BGA found other potential ethical problems related to the Desplaines Valley News – with the newspaper taking advertising money from municipalities represented by Landek in the General Assembly, and Landek employing Hornung as a consultant for the Village of Bridgeview, where Landek is also mayor.

Meanwhile, other print and online publications that may have been plagiarized by the Desplaines Valley News include the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Daily Beast, Huffington Post, National Journal and New York Times, as well as BuzzFeed, Comcast Sportsnet, Politico and Reuters.

The BGA visually compared news items, enlisted online plagiarism detection sites and found:

  • A Reuters article dated Nov. 21, 2014, and focusing on Illinois’ pension crisis begins with this paragraph: "A judge ruled on Friday that an Illinois law aimed at easing the state’s huge unfunded pension liability is unconstitutional, handing a victory to labor unions and state retirees who challenged the law and an initial defeat to the state’s efforts to fix its sagging finances."

A Nov. 26, 2014, Desplaines Valley News editorial begins with, "Be careful what you wish for." The next line is the same as Reuters, except "on Friday" is replaced with "last week." Several other paragraphs are identical or nearly so.

A Nov. 19, 2014, Desplaines Valley News editorial contains the same passage, followed by other identical or nearly identical lines – including one referencing U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

  • A March 20, 2014, Daily Beast column on Russia starts with: "The conflict between the U.S. and Russia over the Ukraine is escalating rapidly. But the warfare is mostly rhetorical and financial."

So also begins a March 26, 2014, editorial in the Desplaines Valley News, with other paragraphs the same or similarly constructed.

At the end of all three editorials an author’s name is not listed; Desplaines Valley News is credited solely.

Other questionable Desplaines Valley News editorials focus on everything from diversity and tolerance (with similarities to a National Journal column) and educational standards (with similarities to a Christian Science Monitor story) to Cuban diplomacy (with similarities to a Washington Post write-up.)

The apparent plagiarism ranges from four paragraphs in one story to 20 paragraphs in another.

Because of the generic crediting, it’s not clear whether Hornung wrote any or all of the Desplaines Valley News editorials in question, though a person familiar with the paper’s operations said Hornung indeed writes many editorials that appear in the publication. (Editorials are opinion pieces that can be regarded as a paper’s official voice, with stances often reflecting views of a paper’s ownership.)

The BGA contacted writers or editors at all 11 news operations. Some declined to comment or respond to inquiries. Even so, there’s no indication any of them gave the Desplaines Valley News permission to use their content.

Copies of the Desplaines Valley News at the Bedford Park Library / BGA photo

Daniel Gross, the Daily Beast columnist who wrote the piece on Russia, said it appears his writing was plagiarized.

"This is not an acceptable practice in professional journalism," Gross said. "It appears they appropriated and reprinted huge chunks of my column without permission or attribution."

Lincoln Mitchell, whose Huffington Post column on government surveillance may also have been plagiarized by the Desplaines Valley News, called it "stealing . . . as far as I’m concerned."

Hornung wouldn’t say whether he wrote the editorials, instead releasing this written statement: "Other than similarities in topics and facts from stories featured openly in the national debate, there is no copying of original arguments or conclusions in our unsigned editorials. We stand by our articles, our reporting, our columns and our opinion pieces."

However, the Desplaines Valley News removed the editorials in question from its web site after questions from the BGA, and then Landek released another statement that was more apologetic:

"We should have cited some of our source material in our unsigned pieces. Further the Desplaines Valley News has tightened internal controls regarding unsigned content and it has removed archived content from our website following a request from a publisher that had been contacted by the BGA."

Hornung said earlier via email that he is an "investor" in Southwest Community Publishing Co., which owns the Desplaines Valley News and manages several other community papers in the south suburbs and on Chicago’s South Side.

Corporate records show Landek, a Bridgeview Democrat and political ally of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), is president of Southwest Community Publishing. Landek apparently is not involved in the paper day to day but said through email: "I reserve the same right that investors of any newspaper . . . to define the editorial opinion and platform."

Hornung resigned as the Sun-Times’ editorial page editor in 1995 when it came to light he plagiarized a Washington Post opinion piece about a balanced budget amendment.

He apologized at the time, saying the duplication was inadvertent, that he mixed up the Post’s version with his own writing while working on the computer.

Although he left the journalism side of the Sun-Times, Hornung ended up on the business side as the paper’s circulation chief and then publisher of a sister publication, the Daily Southtown.

Hornung resigned from the Southtown in 2004 amid allegations that the Sun-Times had inflated its circulation figures – ­in other words, how many copies of the paper sold – on his watch and beyond. Such numbers are important in the news business because advertising rates are based on the number of copies sold.

The Landek-Hornung group bought the Desplaines Valley News in 2012 for an undisclosed amount.

The paper’s coverage area includes Bedford Park, Bridgeview, Brookfield, Countryside, Hodgkins, Indian Head Park, Justice, LaGrange Highlands, Lyons, McCook, Summit and Willow Springs – many of which fall within Landek’s legislative district, meaning readers are potential voters. Those municipalities together spent roughly $70,000 in taxpayer money over the past two years to buy legal notices and other ads in the newspaper, according to records obtained from the municipalities under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Landek indicated the paper doesn’t skew coverage to favor him or his political allies in those towns, saying: "We strive to allow the editors, writers and reporters to write factually and fairly in their news and feature writing and to allow our columnists to express their views freely. The editorial staff has full authority to review and publish articles based on journalism criteria of what is news."

However, the Desplaines Valley News editorialized last year in glowing terms about Toyota Park, the stadium that serves as home field for the Chicago Fire soccer team. The facility, which has drawn controversy because it is carrying massive debt tethered to taxpayers, is owned and operated by the Village of Bridgeview.

At the time of the editorial, entitled "Toyota Park Starts To Pay Off For Bridgeview," Hornung was a consultant for the village, hired to re-negotiate a billboard deal tied to Toyota Park. Hornung was paid more than $70,000 for that work from 2012 through 2014, records show.

Another Desplaines Valley News editorial, from Jan. 16, 2014, focused not on soccer but baseball – retired slugger White Sox slugger Frank Thomas’ induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame and his opposition to performance enhancing drugs.

Several paragraphs from the piece closely mirror content from a Jan. 8, 2014, Comcast Sportsnet web story, raising the question of plagiarism by the Desplaines Valley News.

The headline from the Desplaines Valley News version in part reads, "Honesty Pays Off."

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and Patrick McCraney. They can be reached at rherguth@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9030.