Last night, Michael C. Moynihan of Vice tweeted a series of examples of Jill Abramson, formerly an executive editor of the New York Times, plagiarizing other writers’ work in her new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts.
There was no ambiguity about it; Abramson clearly and obviously committed textbook plagiarism. Her text lifted whole sentences from other sources word for word, or with light revisions, presenting the same facts laid out in the same order as in the originals.
Here’s one part of one set of Moynihan’s examples:
In December 2006, Mojica and two friends traveled to Chad with a camera to explore why Darfur couldn’t be saved. The result was the 2008 documentary Christmas in Darfur.
In December 2006 he and two friends traveled to Chad with a camera to explore why Darfur couldn’t be saved. The result was the 2008 documentary Christmas in Darfur.
That’s a string of 29 words published in a Time Out article Moynihan found from 2010, and a string identically presenting 28 of the same words, published in Abramson’s book as Abramson’s writing. The one-word difference is that Abramson swapped out the subject’s name for a pronoun.
Abramson’s passage was plagiarized. Jill Abramson is a plagiarist.
Like most plagiarists, she’s also arrogant and dishonest about it. “I don’t think it’s an issue at all,” she told a Fox News host last night, after the host had offered her the lifeline of calling it a “footnote issue.” On Twitter, she tried to be more cautious, writing “I take seriously the issues raised and will review the passages in question”—but only after she’d lashed out, Trump-wise, at the motives of the people who’d caught her doing wrong:
The attacks on my book from some @vicenews reflect their unhappiness with what I consider a balanced portrayal.
Abramson was correct that people at Vice had been angry about what she considered a balanced portrayal—partly because they considered her self-assessment of that portrayal to be wrong, and they read her attitude toward them as offensive. But it was also partly because she got significant facts wrong, in the galley version of her book, in ways that they felt reflected her disrespect toward them. That was why Moynihan wrote that he’d tried checking the final version for accuracy, only to find the plagiarism.
That motivation doesn’t change the fact that Moynihan did, in fact, find plagiarism. It does, however, shape the reaction to the plagiarism. Bill Keller, who preceded Abramson as executive editor of the Times, defended her on Twitter:
Jill Abramson is a journalist of courage and integrity. She has written a great book on the profound transformation of the news business, richly documented and full of insight. It’s distressing that some apparent carelessness in attribution might overshadow her achievement.
“Carelessness in attribution” is what happens when you fail to properly format a blockquote. Pasting other people’s text into your own is plagiarism. Journalists of integrity don’t commit plagiarism, and they don’t defend plagiarism just because they consider the plagiarist a peer.
Journalists of integrity don’t
commit plagiarism, and they don’t defend plagiarism just because they consider the plagiarist a peer.
The first-line excuse for Abramson’s plagiarism seems to be that all the sources she lifted text from were mentioned in the book’s endnotes. According to Moynihan, this isn’t true—two of the examples he tweeted, he wrote, were from sources not cited in Abramson’s notes. But either way, it still would have been plagiarism. An endnote is not a license to copy another person’s writing the way Abramson did; if you want to use the words that someone else wrote, you have to put them in quotation marks or otherwise set them off in the text, with clear attribution right there.
Jill Abramson knows these rules. She teaches writing at Harvard, and she went there as an undergraduate, and the student handbook is very straightforward about this:
Students should always take great care to distinguish their own ideas and knowledge from information derived from sources. The term “sources” includes not only primary and secondary material published in print or online, but also information and opinions gained directly from other people. Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks and must be cited fully. In addition, all paraphrased material must be acknowledged completely.
(Despite Bill Keller’s effort to get her off the hook, the sentence of the handbook warning of the penalties for plagiarism treats “work either not their own or without clear attribution” as a single kind of infraction.)
But Abramson was following a different set of rules, the set of rules for people who matter and for publications that matter. Christopher Sprigman, a law professor at New York University, captured the spirit of those rules in a set of tweets denouncing the “fake” plagiarism complaint:
I think people have a pretty hazy understanding of what plagiarism is. Plagiarism is taking others’ original ideas, or distinctive expression, without credit. Taking basic facts isn’t plagiarism. Re-phrasing basic descriptions of facts isn’t plagiarism. 4/
Abramson didn’t take either original ideas or distinctive expression. She re-phrased basic fact descriptions. And then she credited, in endnotes, as is completely customary for a non-fiction trade book. She’s done nothing wrong, as far as I can see. 5/
Professor Christopher Sprigman might want to take a few minutes to read the academic policy guide for the New York University School of Law, which completely contradicts the professor’s claims about what plagiarism is and is not:
A student’s submission of work (including journal submissions) under the student’s name constitutes a representation that the research, analysis, and articulation of the work is exclusively that of the student, except as expressly attributed to another in the work, and that it has been prepared exclusively for the particular course, seminar, or use entitling the student to credit.
Plagiarism occurs when one, either intentionally or through gross negligence, passes off someone else’s words as one’s own, or presents an idea or product copied or paraphrased from an existing source without giving credit to that source.
If he’s a poorly informed law professor, though, Sprigman is well suited to be an elite journalist. His defense of Abramson is the classic big-timer’s defense against evidence of plagiarism: she couldn’t be guilty of stealing other people’s work, because other people’s work doesn’t matter. What she duplicated were “basic facts”—which is an easy thing to say, after someone else has gone out and collected and organized those facts. The message is that the sentences Abrams stole weren’t good enough as writing to count as stolen property (though they were good enough to put down in a book as if they had been her own writing).
What she duplicated were “basic facts”—which is an easy thing to say, after someone else has gone out and collected and organized those facts.
It’s the same defense Abramson mounted in 2008, as managing editor of the Times, when Jack Shafer of Slate caught a Times reporter lifting material from Bloomberg, which was that reporter’s second offense. Abramson told Shafer that this infraction wasn’t really plagiarism, but that the writer
did not fully understand Times policy of not using wire boilerplate and giving credit when we do make use of such material. As I mentioned to you, other papers do permit unattributed use of such material. He should not have inserted wire material into his Times coverage without attribution. That said, because the new examples do not involve many words or an original thought, the transgression does not seem to be as serious as the first instance.
In that case, Abramson managed, or managing-editored, to have it both ways: the Times had a policy that reporters shouldn’t do such things, but there was nothing wrong with doing them. The lifted text was “wire material” or “boilerplate,” not anything worth stealing.
The boilerplate or “basic facts” excuse is unconvincing—at best, it’s epistemological fraud, presenting someone else’s selection of facts as a sample of the writer’s own knowledge—but high-end journalists embrace it because it’s shaped by a structural truth: whether or not there are separate classes of writing, with separate value, there are definitely separate classes of writers.
It’s not the status of the words that defines the offense, it’s the status of the person who originally wrote the words compared to the person who copied them. That’s why people who otherwise profess to care about professional standards are rallying around Abramson. Jill Abramson can’t seriously be a plagiarist, because plagiarism isn’t a serious offense when people like Jill Abramson do it. Fareed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, Juan Williams—above a certain level, a public figure is immune to any real career consequences for stealing work from the lower castes.
She can always say she presented someone else’s writing as her own, without knowing that that person was passing off a third person’s writing as their own.
One unclear point around Abramson’s plagiarism is exactly how many layers of other people’s work were involved. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post reported that in the acknowledgments of Merchants of Truth, Abramson wrote that an assistant “drafted portions of this book.” If she has to, she can always say she presented someone else’s writing as her own, without knowing that that person was passing off a third person’s writing as their own.
And that should be enough to settle it. Famous writers are factories, and a factory can always find somewhere to dump its mess. The little people just have to live with being dumped on.