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.

When editors bury that which cannot die

Jack Shafer
Jul 11, 2012 15:41 UTC

When Tom Waits sang, “You can’t unring a bell,” on the album One From the Heart, he was saying that even if we shove all of life’s mistakes and embarrassments down the memory hole, they still ding-a-ling-ding-ding from the beyond.

For reasons mysterious, not all media outlets have gotten that message. Yesterday, Poynter’s Steve Myers reported that NPR erased from its website an entire story about a Kabul execution by contributor Ahmad Shafi that was plagiarized in part from a Jason Burke piece in the March 2001 edition of the London Review of Books. NPR replaced the Web page with an editor’s note explaining the copy theft, but deleted the story.

NPR’s deletion was silly. As Myers reported, the plagiarized account can still be found elsewhere on the Web. If and when that site removes the page, the Wayback Machine or some archivist or Google Cache will have preserved it for inquiring minds. If those sites do not cough up the story, email me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and I’ll exercise my fair-use right by forwarding a copy of the NPR piece for your educational and research purposes.

Jonah Lehrer’s recycling business

Jack Shafer
Jun 20, 2012 23:38 UTC

“Write every piece three times,” the late Richard Strout used to advise journalists who craved advancement in the profession.

Strout, who wrote the New Republic’s TRB column for four decades and worked 60 years as a Washington correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wasn’t calling on his colleagues to submit identical copies of their work to different publications for payment, as New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer just got busted for.

Strout was more subtle. If, for example, you were a freelancer who had just penned a slice-of-life piece for the New Republic about a coal strike in West Virginia, the only way to earn back your investment of time on such a low-paying piece was to spin off a similar yet distinctive version, maybe to the Outlook section of the Washington Post. If you could reconstitute elements of the narrative into a work that fed the policy debate over unions, your efforts were legitimate. After satisfying those two outlets, a smart freelancer would shoot for the glossies with a big coal-strike feature, perhaps the New York Times Magazine or the Atlantic. Sometimes the publish-every-piece-three-times impetus has come not from writers, but from editors who, having seen a writer’s earlier work on a topic, wanted a localized version of the writer’s story.

How to think about plagiarism

Jack Shafer
Oct 14, 2011 21:50 UTC

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.

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