Opinion

Jack Shafer

Plagiarists’ real crime? Ripping off readers.

Jack Shafer
Jul 29, 2014 22:19 UTC

A man reads a newspaper in the auditorium before the lectures for the 15th biennial International Anti-Corruption Conference in Brasilia

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.

Dear Mr. Murdoch: Save yourself 80 billion bucks

Jack Shafer
Jul 17, 2014 21:59 UTC

News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch waits to testify before the House Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington

The first time Rupert Murdoch tried to acquire Warner, Ronald Reagan was completing his first term as president, the Bell System break-up was nearly finished, and the first Macintosh had just gone on sale.

Murdoch’s aim was to construct an entertainment-information conglomerate on top of his existing newspaper properties. When Warner (or Warner Communications, as the parent company was called then) spurned his 1984 offer, he promptly went on to purchase 20th Century Fox as his bedrock and from that base built an international company that includes a American broadcast network, 28 terrestrial U.S. television stations, several satellite broadcasting entities, a profusion of cable television channels, an immensely profitable news network, and more.

Thirty years later, the 83-year-old Murdoch is throwing $80 billion at TimeWarner, which recently shed its print properties, for a new reason. Having exceeded his infotainment empire goals, Murdoch still needs to expand his business to compete with other jumbo-sized media conglomerates, such as the No. 1 revenue-generating conglomerate, Comcast — which owns NBC and Universal, and has a bid pending regulatory approval for Time Warner (no relation anymore) Cable — and No. 2 conglomerate Disney, which owns a line-up of properties similar to that of Murdoch. If Murdoch’s No. 4 conglomerate, 21st Century Fox, succeeded in swallowing No. 3, TimeWarner, it would become the new No. 2.

The truth is, you’ve never had the ‘right to be forgotten’

Jack Shafer
Jul 15, 2014 21:44 UTC

An illustration picture shows a Google logo with two one Euro coins

A recent ruling by Europe’s top court has given its people a “right to be forgotten.” Google and other search engines must now delete “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant, or excessive” information from search queries when a European individual requests it, even when the info is true. This isn’t a classic case of censorship: the “offending” pages produced by newspapers and other websites will go untouched. Google and the other search engines just won’t be allowed to link to them.

The court has largely left to the search engines how best to handle requests to decouple the names of petitioners from search results served, which has already produced major confusion, as well as a comically passive-aggressive response from Google, which has received more than 70,000 requests in the opening round, with 1,000 said to be arriving daily. (See this Washington Post editorial for a few examples of people who have succeeded in persuading Google to “delist” certain search results.)

How did a right to be forgotten become enshrined, even in a place as retrograde as Europe? If you’ve lived in a village or even a small town, you probably learned the hard way that privacy has never existed in the original state of nature. Everybody in a small town knows that you drink, how much you drink, and what brand, thanks to that rumor-mongering liquor-store clerk. They know where you sleep at night, who you sleep with, and whether your nights are restful or rambunctious because the local pharmacy tech gossips about your Ambien and Viagra prescriptions. The librarian knows what books you’ve checked out of the local library, the local merchants recall having rejected your overextended credit card, and they all swap this information like chattering birds on a wire.

Twitter panic in the newsroom

Jack Shafer
Jul 10, 2014 22:15 UTC

 A person holds a magnifying glass over a computer screen displaying Twitter logos

With the exception of a well-drafted libel suit, nothing fills the underwear of the modern newsroom editor with liquid panic faster than social media, especially Twitter. Having invested millions of dollars and countless man-hours to erecting sturdy news standards based on fairness and impartiality, they fear that one 140-character message by an editorial employee will ravage the entire edifice.

The panic-fluids ran hot over at NPR this week after a blogger on the network’s education team tweeted, “I reach out to diverse sources on deadline. Only the white guys get back to me :(” The blogger apologized, and to her credit did not place her tweet in the burn bag. Mark Memmott, the network’s Standards & Practices supervising editor, issued a memo to remind the staff of NPR’s social media policy, which he boiled down to this: “If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web.”

Personal comments on Twitter or Facebook “can reflect on NPR and raise questions about our ability to be objective,” Memmott wrote. Citing NPR’s Ethics Handbook, he asserted that “nothing on the Web is truly private,” and that even retweets were suspect — and to be avoided! — because they can be viewed as endorsements.

What’s more rare — a unicorn or an Al Jazeera America viewer?

Jack Shafer
Jul 9, 2014 09:47 UTC

 A man works at a desk in the Al Jazeera America broadcast center in New York,

Al Jazeera America draws such a teensy audience — 15,000 on average during prime time, according to Nielsen — that if you dropped all of the fledgling cable news channel’s viewers into a modern NBA arena you’d leave a couple of thousand vacant seats. To place Al Jazeera America’s audience in perspective, it’s less than half of that once attracted by Al Gore’s Current TV, the channel it replaced last August. Ratings leader Fox News Channel pulls in an evening average of about 1.6 million.

Such miserable ratings would be understandable if Al Jazeera America produced its shows on a shoestring, as did Current TV, or if it marginalized itself by broadcasting bonkers propaganda like RT (formerly Russia Today), or if most cable households couldn’t receive it.

But none of those excuses apply. Al Jazeera America’s executives have claimed that the company was spending “hundreds of millions” to establish 12 U.S. bureaus, not to mention the $500 million it gave Current TV’s owners to go away. Unlike the bombastic RT, Al Jazeera America has to date avoided peddling any country’s political line, even though it’s owned by the wealthy Kingdom of Qatar, a hereditary monarchy. (If prizes are a measure of journalistic worth, Al Jazeera has already established its legitimacy by winning two Peabody Awards.) And while not available everywhere, Al Jazeera America can be viewed in about 55 million of the country’s 100 million pay-TV households.

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