An editor must have a heart like leather. Not freshly tanned leather—all supple and yielding like a baby’s bum—but like an abandoned baseball glove that’s been roasting in the Sonoran Desert for five or six years. Only those who are hard of heart can properly deal with the plagiarists who violate the journalistic code.
I’m pleased to report that this morning Politico‘s top editors, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rock-hearted in resolving charges that their reporter, Kendra Marr, lifted material from the New York Times, the Associated Press, Scripps Howard, Greenwire, The Hill, and elsewhere for at least seven of her stories with no attribution. Marr has resigned. Harris and VandeHei’s compact statement about Marr’s disgrace doesn’t use the word plagiarism, but should, as my friend the press critic Craig Silverman points out. I agree.
“There are no mitigating circumstances for plagiarism,” the cold, cold heart of Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli stated earlier this year after Post reporter Sari Horwitz got caught stealing copy from the Arizona Republic.
Brauchli got it exactly right. It doesn’t matter if you pinched copy because you were tired, you were harried, your spouse or child was sick or dying, you were under deadline pressure, you jumbled up your notes, you took boilerplate or wire copy that nobody should really claim “authorship” over, you have a substance problem, you committed a cut-and-paste error, you were blinded by the “warp speed” of the Internet, you were a victim of the “win the morning” culture, you are young and inexperienced, you had two windows open at the same time and confused them, or any of the excuses tendered by the accused reporters described in Trudy Lieberman’s 1995 Columbia Journalism Review article.
These aren’t excuses. These are confessions. And they mitigate nothing.
As I’ve written before, plagiarism doesn’t offend me because it exploits the previous hard work of some enterprising writer—even though it does. When you attribute passages to another writer, you’re likewise exploiting their work. But at least they receive psychic income from the citation. The quoted writer is enriched by the fact that their work has been acknowledged, that somebody might go back and read their work, and that their reputation is likely to rise because of the credit thrown their way.