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Liberal Use
by Jonathan Chait

Only at TNR Online| Post date 06.22.01    

A few weeks ago I came across a column by William F. Buckley in the National Review Online that began: "The following parable just came in from a friend, via the Internet." Buckley then reprinted the parable in toto, some three-hundred-words worth, and then concluded with some commentary of his own. What made this episode so odd was that Buckley apparently hadn't bothered to check out who had written the parable to begin with. (According to my two-minute search of Lexis-Nexis, it was someone named Don Dodson of Fort Worth, Texas, in a letter to the Chicago Tribune.) Now, if somebody e-mailed me one of Bill Buckley's columns, I wouldn't just reprint it as having come in "from the Internet," even if I happened to think it was brilliant (which would be unlikely). But perhaps one of the joys of being William F. Buckley is not having to bother with such basic journalistic steps.

Recently, though, Buckley seems to have taken his appropriation of other people's words a good deal further: He has ripped off an author who appeared in his own magazine. Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote a story for the print edition of National Review debunking the various health claims made by activists seeking to end the Navy's use of a training base on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. (The issue date is June 25. But like most magazines, this date is when the issue comes off the newsstands, not when it goes on. The article in question was put into the Lexis-Nexis database on June 6.) On June 12, several days after the Fumento piece appeared, Buckley wrote a column for National Review Online on the same subject as Fumento's article.

There are, it bears mentioning, some differences between the Fumento and Buckley pieces. Fumento tells the story straight, presenting the activists' arguments and then knocking them down; Buckley employs a thin literary conceit, imagining how a defense lawyer for the Navy would rebut the charges. Fumento begins with the image of Al Sharpton sitting in jail for his anti-Vieques activism; Buckley ends with it.

But the core of both pieces is the rebuttal of the activists' health arguments, and here Buckley follows Fumento like an echo, employing the same arguments, in the same sequence, often using the same language. Indeed, virtually every fact presented by Buckley appears to have been lifted from Fumento's article, though Fumento is not cited or even mentioned anywhere in Buckley's column. Judge for yourself:

Fumento: "To begin with, the Vieques inhabitants closest to the gunnery site live about nine miles away--and the gunnery site is downwind of them."

Buckley: "Well, the gunnery done by the Navy is nine miles from the only population center of Vieques, and downwind from it, which means that whatever rises from the gunnery rises out to sea, not upwind to the inhabitants of Vieques."

Fumento: "The infant-mortality myth originated in February 2000, when the Puerto Rico Physicians and Surgeons Association held a press conference to claim that the rate was more than 50 percent higher on Vieques than in mainland Puerto Rico."

Buckley: "The defense attorney would take on the infant-mortality charge, which originated in February 2000 when the Puerto Rico Physicians and Surgeons Association charged that in Vieques, infant mortality was 50 percent higher than in mainland Puerto Rico."

Fumento: "They presented their conclusions to the Puerto Rico Health Department; the very next day, Puerto Rico health secretary Dr. Carmen Feliciano publicly refuted the allegations, and accused the Physicians and Surgeons Association of 'lying to the public.' How so? They had neatly clipped out the years 1996 through 1998 from their statistics. With those years left in, the infant-mortality rate in Vieques is actually lower than that of mainland Puerto Rico."

Buckley: "These representations--widely reiterated every day, everywhere--were weighed by Puerto Rico Health Secretary Dr. Carmen Feliciano, who observed that the organization had been 'lying to the public.' The Association had simply eliminated birth figures between 1996 and 1998. If they hadn't done so, the figures would have shown infant mortality in Vieques lower than in mainland Puerto Rico."

Fumento: "As for the high cancer rate, it comes from data compiled by Dr. Diego Zavala of the Puerto Rico Cancer Registry in 1997--which data actually show that the annual cancer rates on Vieques have been alternately both higher and lower than those of mainland Puerto Rico over the past several decades."

Buckley: "Data show that the annual cancer rates on Vieques have been alternately both higher and lower than those of mainland Puerto Rico over the past several decades."

Fumento: "The data bounce around because the Vieques population is so low that each cancer case makes a big statistical impact; the activists merely picked the year that best served their cause."

Buckley: "Moreover, he'd show that the volatility of Vieques cancer statistics rests on so simple a reason as that the population is so tiny that individual cases of cancer make big statistical splashes. The anti-Navy people simply picked the year that best served their prosecutorial cause."

Fumento: "The Johns Hopkins team concluded that 'within the constraint of the data available, no inference can be made as to the role of noise from naval gunfire in producing echocardiographic abnormalities" and that there is "insufficient basis for reaching a conclusion that Vieques residents have pericardial thickening or other heart abnormalities.'"

Buckley: "The Johns Hopkins people will testify that 'within the constraint of the data available, no inference can be made as to the role of noise from naval gunfire in producing echocardiographic abnormalities.'"

Now, it's easy for an opinion journalist to slip up and use somebody else's idea, or quote, without crediting them, but this seems systematic. When I called Buckley, he practically admitted as much. He said, "When I'm quoting an article in my own magazine, I'm a little bit reluctant to continue to draw attention to my magazine. So about every fifth time, I don't." I hate to be a journalism scold, but perhaps the cause of modesty could be better served in other ways.

JONATHAN CHAIT is a senior editor at TNR.


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