Plagiarists’ real crime? Ripping off readers.

By Jack Shafer
July 29, 2014

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.

Putting such a high premium on creative, original work prevents Weingarten from appreciating why all plagiarism stinks with the same stench. Plagiarism is not a crime against the journalists whose passages have been stolen. It’s a crime against readers, who have every right to believe that journalists vouch for the copy they serve. By vouch, I mean the journalist has reported or otherwise independently verified the assertions in his copy, or can cite the source that has. I can’t know Johnson’s mind, but perhaps he didn’t cite Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia as sources because he knows how flawed so many of their entries can be and that his editors would reject his copy if he pointed to them — or that if his editors didn’t reject his copy his readers would. But even if he had pinched copy from such impeccable sources as the Encyclopedia Britannica and peer-reviewed journals, the crime against the reader would be the same: Readers can’t judge the truthiness of a piece unless they have some idea of the provenance of the facts asserted.

Whether of the real or petite variety, plagiarism violates the contract between writer and reader — and the contract between writer and editor! — that something original and worthy is being presented. That holds whether the copy submitted is a listicle or master’s degree paper.

Disdain the plagiarist because he traffics in the counterfeit. His greatest crime is wasting your time.

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Send blatant examples of plagiarism to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed has never been plagiarized. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: A man reads a newspaper in the auditorium before the lectures for the 15th biennial International Anti-Corruption Conference ‘Mobilising People: Connecting Agents of Change ” in Brasilia November 10, 2012. REUTERS / Ueslei Marcelino

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Then there’s the Doris Kearns Goodwin not-so-black-and-white (I thought pretty black) episodes. I always admired her, though more for her PBS presence than her writings. So part of me is pleased that she was able to put the controversy behind her. But another part of me abhors her apparent complete rehabilitation. Seems like the scarlet letter should not be so easily erased. What’s your opinion, Jack? Thanks, Ed Kay.

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