A Journalist Wannabe

posted in: July 2013 | 0

For whatever reason (it can’t be the money), Robert Cabin wants to be a journalist as well as a scientist. For now, given the many crimes he has committed against the profession of journalism, he should stick with his day job (associate professor at Brevard College in North Carolina).

First and foremost, journalists must double-check their sources and statements. Cabin falters on this count. He cites a paper by Mike Tuland (that’s Tulang, actually) and another co-authored by Dina Kafeler (Kageler). He attributes to me a trenchant article on pigs at Hakalau (October 1997 Environment Hawai`i) that was instead written by a journalistic intern working with us that summer (thank you, Sona Pai).

On page 26, he refers to something called the “Kilauea State Forest Preserve on the Big Island.” Never heard of it – nor is it likely even to exist, given that the state has forest reserves (no preserves at all).

Cabin discusses the hawksbill turtle, an iconic species of Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. “As far as we know,” he writes, “it regularly nests only in the Hawaiian Islands.” Actually, hawksbills, though endangered, are globally distributed.

In discussing the gorse infestation on Mauna Kea and what to do about it, Cabin disparages burns, since that would also mean “destroying any co-occurring native species.” It beggars belief to think that any native plants have managed to hold on in light of two centuries of depredations by sheep, goats, cattle – and, of course, gorse itself, which pretty much crowds out any other plant that might have the temerity to try to “co-occur.”

For the record, birds are vertebrates.

Journalists should also be wary of using and abusing the freedoms afforded by the parenthetical phrase.

First rule: for every open paren, you need a close paren. Second one: avoid putting one parenthetical statement inside another. Both rules are violated in this passage (from page 107): “When the volunteers reconvened beneath a spreading kauila (a rare native tree in the buckthorn family that produces exceptionally dense, hard wood that the Hawaiians used to make kapa (cloth) beaters, vicious spears (ihe) and poles for construction inside the ten-acre exclosure, another Hawaiian man blew the pu`ole`ole (conch shell) once for each of the four cardinal directions.”

At times, the parenthetical statements add an unintended soupçon of humor to a volume where levity is otherwise scarce or forced. There’s this, from page 113: “He explained that shortly after my last visit, they had hand sown over a million `a`ali`i (Dodonaea viscose, a relatively common and hardy indigenous shrub in the soapberry family) seeds.” And this, from page 146: “I walked over and stood beneath a remnant old lama (Diospyros sandwicensis, a member of the ebony family that produces edible persimmons and very hard wood that the Hawaiians fashioned into rafters and traps for deep ocean fish; they also pulverized the wood and mixed it with other materials to make compresses for the treatment of skin sores).”

Certainly the most serious of Cabin’s journalistic crimes is plagiarism. In an email that arrived several days before the book, Cabin gave me fair warning: “I wanted to let you know that my original manuscript included an extensive annotated bibliography that allowed me to carefully document and give proper credit to all of the sources I used to write this book.” He then puts the blame on the publisher for keeping him from doing this: “UH didn’t feel this was appropriate for this kind of book, and thus had me replace this with a more informal, unannotated bibliography.”

“I’m bringing this up because … I heavily relied on your various writings about Hakalau in several sections of Part I… As an author/budding journalist myself, I’ve become more sensitive to such issues.”

Indeed, he did rely heavily on material that was published by Environment Hawai`i. To give but one example, compare what Pai wrote in her article, “At Hakalau Refuge, Hunter Pressure Overrides Conservationists’ Concerns” (Environment Hawai`i, October 1997), to Cabin’s text (in italics):

“Fencing of the HFNWR’s first management unit, the 550-acre Middle Honohina unit, was completed in 1988. Feral ungulate control on the refuge had officially begun. In 1989, a group of professional hunters from Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park came to the refuge to eradicate pigs and cattle from the unit. Following a concerted hunting effort that removed nearly all cattle and most pigs, snares were set within the unit and along the boundary to catch any animals that may have eluded the hunters. Two wild cows, 11 feral pigs, and two feral dogs were eliminated by the snares. The unit was then declared ungulate-free.”

The refuge began by fencing a 550-acre mid-elevation subunit in 1988, employing professional hunters to systematically kill the pigs and cattle within this unit in 1989, and relying thereafter on snares to catch any remaining fugitives. After subsequently killing a few feral cows, pigs, and dogs, the snares stayed unsprung and the unit was declared ungulate-free.

Altogether, pages 24-25 and 31-32 are lifted, with a few tweaks, from material previously published in this newsletter.

Much of the book is made up of long first-person accounts of his travels and experiences across the islands (including a description of a naked romp in Limahuli – TMI!). It is hard to argue that these are fabricated, and I won’t, but much of the extensive dialogue he includes just doesn’t sound right to anyone familiar with conversational English (much less Hawaiian pidgin).

For example, Cabin is describing an episode in which he, an overworked scientist, is trying to plug his overtime into a computer. Two field technicians, both “locals,” pull his leg by telling him to use a special code they developed for just such occasions. “I assure you this is a really important code for people who work the kind of hours you do,” one of them informs Cabin. They then “laugh heartily” and leave Cabin to figure it out. Probably something like this happened, but the dialogue is wince-worthy.

The book is replete with chuckles, hearty laughter, people saying things “matter of factly,” and just about every other trite phrase used by writers thinking they are being colorful when they’re just grasping at clichés.

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