Friday, March 15, 2013

Plagiarism or Miscommunication

When you watch syndicated columnists and talking heads, most notably those on the political right, you can see how quickly a particular theme or argument can be distributed - how the same words suddenly appear in the columns or are heard from the mouths of dozens of partisan opinion leaders. While sometimes a catchy turn of phrase will catch on quickly, in many cases it's more than fair to assume that they've received those talking points from a common source. More so when the words fit with a new political attack, or are part of a Frank Lutz-type effort to skew the language to be more favorable to a Republican cause.

Also, it's not particularly unusual to see a major newspaper carry an opinion column by a prominent person who otherwise has not demonstrated either the necessary interest or capacity to pen a coherent opinion column. Sometimes a co-author is credited, but sometimes it's pretty clear that the column was written by somebody else. That could be a staff member, but let's not forget that advocacy groups often write opinion pieces that they shop around to politicians - "Stick your name on this, and we can get it into the Post or the Times."

At the next level, we have the payola-type scandals that periodically hit the news, when it is revealed that a columnist is taking money to advance a particular cause or idea. Columnists caught with their hands in the cookie jar typically protest, "I took the money, but I wrote exactly what I would have written had I not been paid." But... do you believe it? Obviously the people paying them do not.

So when I hear that a columnist like Juan Williams has plagiarized, yes, the theory of double plagiarism could be true. It could be that Juan Williams believed that he was only plagiarizing his assistant, and that using his assistant's words without attribution was fair game because "everybody does it". But it could also be that the intern was given an instruction that he simply misunderstood. Something along the lines of,
Get me some content from an immigration organization that I can use to pump up my argument.
Under this theory, the intern may have believed he was tasked with researching the findings of organizations that had written reports on the subject, and then communicate that information back to Williams. But Williams may have expected that the intern would contact somebody within an organization whose beliefs were aligned with the argument he hoped to "pump up", not to get their published findings, but to get a pre-written passage or column that it was understood would be plugged into his column with few or no changes.

Many years I heard an interesting story from the employee of a manufacturing consortium. She was tasked with putting together the newsletter, and they were coming up on a deadline to send it to the printer. Her boss had instructed her that one of the articles needed to be more compelling, and told her to contact a specific U.S. Senator's office to get a quote supporting the article's thesis. She tried to get a quote, but was unable to get through. "Don't worry about it," she was told, "Run the quote and we'll get him to clear it after-the-fact."

When you have sufficient prominence and sufficient connection, the rules don't apply to you in the same way that they perhaps did during your earlier career. It's not really a surprise that some columnists think it's okay to take a payoff to write opinion pieces that they rationalize, "I would have written anyway," that they think it's okay to plagiarize their interns without attribution, that they borrow words, phrases, and even entire columns from advocacy groups who are trying to push the same message. What harm is there in letting somebody else do the heavy lifting for you, if you're already essentially on the same page, right?

The sad part, it seems to me, is that these games are played on a massive scale, the efforts to rein them in seem half-hearted, and the consequences for getting caught usually amount to nothing.

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