The plagiarists are back in the news, taking public beatings for allegedly having filed refried copy at BuzzFeed, the New York Times, and the United States Army War College, where Senator John Walsh, (D-Mont.), has just been busted for lifting portions of his 2007 master’s degree paper.
Of course, plagiarists — like shoplifters — are always with us, pinching small and large chunks of stuff that doesn’t belong to them. So I don’t think this week’s news necessarily means that a new plague of plagiarism has descended upon us, only that the law of averages decided to harvest three perpetrators at roughly the same time.
To answer the question of why somebody would commit plagiarism, you would first have to answer why somebody would shoplift. Plagiarism, like shoplifting, is a crime of optimism. Both plagiarists and shoplifters know what they’re doing is wrong. They know the odds of getting caught are high and getting higher, thanks to the advent of search engines and security cameras. They know disgrace will follow, they might lose their jobs, and in the case of shoplifting, their imprudence may earn them jail time. But as optimists, plagiarists and shoplifters ignore the nasty weather awaiting them and sail on, assuming that somehow they’ll outrun the storm.
I once believed that only the talentless plagiarized, just as I once believed that only the hungry shoplift. But too many accomplished journalists have helped themselves to words published by others without attribution, as this 1995 piece by Trudy Lieberman in the Columbia Journalism Review documented: the mature Fox Butterfield did it and so did the young Nina Totenberg. More recently, experienced Washington Post reporters Sari Horwitz and William Booth were reprimanded for plagiarism. The list goes on: Fareed Zakaria, Gerald Posner, Alexei Barrionuevo. Even our vice president, Joseph R. Biden, plagiarized a law review article while he was in law school. During his run for the 1988 Democratic Party presidential nomination, he plagiarized from a British politician’s speeches.
My friend Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post believes it’s a mistake to treat all cases of copy-lifting equally, preferring to separate what he calls “real plagiarism” from the sort of petite (my word) plagiarism that Benny Johnson of BuzzFeed committed. Real plagiarism, in Weingarten’s view, requires a writer to purloin copy that has “intrinsic value” and “original insight.” So when Molly Ivins pirated from Clive James the phrase “a condom stuffed with walnuts” to describe Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body (and for which Weingarten busted Ivins in 2004), that constituted real plagiarism. But when BuzzFeed’s Johnson helped himself to less-than-creative copy from Yahoo Answers, Wikipedia, the Guardian, U.S. News & World Report, and others for his BuzzFeed pieces, his conduct was “sleazy and lazy and bad” and “crap,” but falls short of real plagiarism because what he took was of boilerplate quality, writes Weingarten.