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CJRColumbia Journalism Review

July/August 1995 | Contents

Plagiarize, Plagiarize, Plagiarize...

only be sure to call it research

by Trudy Lieberman
Lieberman is a contributing editor of CJR. She is a senior editor at Consumer Reports. This article reflects her conclusions, not those of Consumer Reports.

"Plagiarize!
Let no one else's work evade your eyes.
Remember why the good lord made your eyes.
So don't change your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize,
Only be sure to always - to call it, please - research."

Lobachevsky, a song by Tom Lehrer.

Last fall Susan Youngwood, an adjunct journalism instructor at St. Michael's College, a small liberal arts school near Burlington, Vermont, phoned the offices of CJR to pose a question. For an exercise in covering speeches, she had asked her students to listen to John F. Kennedy's inaugural address and write a story about it. The sixteen students, mostly sophomores, complied with the assignment. However, two students, acting independently, took a short cut, plagiarized The New York Times's account of Kennedy's speech, and submitted the Times's words as their own.

The students received an F for the course, the maximum penalty the journalism department demands. (One student, however, appealed, and the punishment was rescinded.) But Youngwood wanted more. She wanted examples that told her students why plagiarism was bad, and looked to CJR for guidance. "I was curious about what happens on a professional level," she said. "If I'm caught plagiarizing, what happens?"

Her question was intriguing. But the answers, like so many, are not a crisp black or white. Their tones of gray mirror the ambivalence society accords dozens of other transgressions. To be sure, most writers and editors still regard plagiarism as a journalistic evil - the profession's cardinal sin. Editors talk convincingly about the covenants of trust and credibility that are severed when a reporter or columnist takes another's words and falsely passes them off as his or her own. "This is something you never, never do," says James Fallows, Washington editor of The Atlantic Monthly. "Every line of work needs clear rules. If you're a soldier, you don't desert. If you're a writer, you don't steal anyone's prose. It should be the one automatic firing."

 But it is not. Punishment is uneven, ranging from severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses. The sin itself carries neither public humiliation nor the mark of Cain. Some editors will keep a plagiarist on staff or will knowingly hire one if talent outweighs the infraction.

If convicted Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy can metamorphose into a talk show host with a band of admiring followers and Richard Nixon can go to his grave a respected elder statesman, it's hardly surprising that journalists who commit plagiarism can continue their careers at the same publication or move on to some loftier endeavor.

A classic example is Nina Totenberg, the well-known, enterprising reporter for National Public Radio who has made a name for herself disclosing Washington's dirty secrets. Totenberg was fired for plagiarism when she worked as a staff writer for the now-defunct National Observer, a fact disclosed by Al Hunt in a Wall Street Journal column during the Clarence Thomas hearings some twenty years later. In 1972, Totenberg simply took several paragraphs and verbatim quotes from a Washington Post report about former House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill, who was about to become majority leader, and dropped them into her own story about him, without attributing a single word to the Post. "I was in a hurry. I used terrible judgment," she told CJR. "The fact I used so many direct quotes obligated me morally to credit the Post. I should have been punished. I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again."

Pursuing an answer to Susan Youngwood's question, CJR looked at twenty newspaper and magazine plagiarism cases that have surfaced since 1988. Eight reporters were fired. Two of them were rehired after Newspaper Guild arbitrations, and the rest have secured new positions, some in journalism. Three of the twenty were suspended for varying lengths of time; one had his column suspended for a brief period; one had his column discontinued but kept his job; one resigned and was offered another job at the same organization; one left the paper before his plagiarism was discovered, and the remaining five were not punished.

Here's what has happened to some of the journalists who got caught:

´ Mark Hornung, editorial page editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, resigned in March after he admitted lifting twelve paragraphs nearly verbatim from a Washington Post editorial on the balanced budget amendment and dropping them into his own fifteen-paragraph piece on the subject. The Sun-Times offered him a position in the circulation department, where he currently works.

´ Ken Hamblin, a Denver Post columnist who also syndicates a national column through the New York Times Syndicate and a radio talk show through the Entertainment Radio Network, was suspended for two months last year by the Post after he plagiarized five paragraphs, almost word for word, from a news story published around the same time in the rival Rocky Mountain News. During Hamblin's suspension, numerous media outlets continued to carry his column and talk show. He remains a popular journalist in conservative circles, and shortly after his suspension was a luncheon guest at the Heritage Foundation.

´ In 1989 Bob Hepburn, Washington bureau chief for the Toronto Star, plagiarized three paragraphs, changing only one word, from a Washington Monthly story (on the newsstands at the time) about decrepit city services in Washington, and used them in his column about D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Four months later, after the Washington Monthly made a public issue of the theft, the Star discontinued his column, but he continued on as bureau chief. He is currently on leave from his position as head of the Star's Mideast bureau.

´ Michael Kramer, chief political correspondent for Time, took a sentence from a Los Angeles Times piece by the lawyers Charles Fried and Alan Dershowitz, altered it slightly, and used it as an unattributed fillip to a 1992 column about Ross Perot. Time and Kramer apologized to readers, and Kramer sent a separate letter of apology to Fried, but he received no punishment and is still the magazine's political columnist.

´ Edwin Chen, Washington reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a book in 1992 called Cheating Death, a nonfiction crime thriller about a doctor and an insurance scam. Chen based his book largely on reporting done a few years earlier for a story in Vanity Fair by contributing editor Ann Louise Bardach. Chen's prose included more than forty passages that closely resembled Bardach's piece, and created the erroneous impression that he had done substantial reporting for the book. Chen is still writing for the Times and was awarded the prestigious assignment of covering the health care debate over the past two years.

´ Fox Butterfield, Boston bureau chief for The New York Times, took five paragraphs from a Boston Globe story about, ironically, plagiarism committed in a commencement address by H. Joachim Maitre, Boston University's dean of the College of Communications. Butterfield's prose was very similar to the Globe's; a few words were changed, a few rearranged. Butterfield got a one-week suspension and remained the bureau chief.

´ Bob Morris was a columnist for The Orlando Sentinel. In early 1994, he left the paper to try new ventures unrelated to journalism. A year later, the Sentinel discovered that Morris had written a column for the paper in October 1993 that was essentially the same as one published eleven years earlier by Mike Harden, a columnist for the now-defunct Columbus, Ohio, Citizen-Journal. The Sentinel column, which was subsequently reprinted in Reader's Digest, contained a number of sentences that were nearly identical to the earlier work.

Punishment was moot since Morris was no longer on the Sentinel staff. But the paper published an apology to its readers and made a cash settlement to Harden, now at The Columbus Dispatch. Morris remains a journalistic presence in Orlando. He is listed as editor-at-large on the masthead of the monthly magazine Orlando, and self-syndicates a column on Florida life to several local newspapers. Last year one of them, The Leesburg Daily Commercial, found Morris's column such a valuable commodity that the paper promoted it on billboards in the area.

´ Gregory Freeman, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, took three sentences from a Boston Globe column by Derrick Z. Jackson and used them in his own piece about controversial Clinton nominee Lani Guinier in 1993. His column was suspended for a month, but he remained on the staff, taking what the paper said was a "previously scheduled vacation." He continues to write political and social commentary for the Post-Dispatch.

´ Laura Parker was The Washington Post's Miami bureau chief when she was fired in 1991 for inserting quotes from people she did not interview into her story about Florida's mosquito and grasshopper infestation; the quotes came from Miami Herald and AP reporting. Today she covers the environment in the Washington bureau of The Detroit News and was seated at the head table during a National Press Club luncheon commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Earth Day.

The token punishment and lack of stigma attached to plagiarism flow in part from the profession's inability to define exactly what it is. Webster's Third New International is clear - to plagiarize is "to steal and pass off as one's own (the ideas or words of another): use (a created production) without crediting the source . . . ." But that definition stretches around a mountain of sins. Is plagiarism the theft of an idea, one word, two words, three words, four sentences, five paragraphs, long passages, or simply the research of others boiled down to yours? Is it a rearrangement of another's words and thoughts, or a near verbatim match with a different word substituted here and there?

Legal precedent isn't much help. Plagiarism is not a legal term of art. Its close cousin, copyright infringement, occurs if a work created by someone is substantially similar to a pre-existing work, and there's evidence that the person had access to the earlier version. That standard, too, leaves a lot of wiggle room, and there are thousands of cases interpreting the language. Very few instances of newspaper and magazine plagiarism ever come to court since copyright cases are expensive and little money is usually at stake. Vanity Fair writer Ann Louise Bardach did sue Edwin Chen and his publisher, and ended up with a $25,000 settlement, out of which she had to cover some $9,000 in attorneys' fees.

"I don't think there's anything like a misdemeanor," says Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Green. "All plagiarism is felonious, but there are degrees of felonies." Walker Lundy, editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, also makes a distinction. "There is a difference between stealing an entire column or story and stealing a phrase. Should there be a difference in the sanctions? I don't know."

Many publications have no written policies on plagiarism, and the codes of ethics developed by professional societies are imprecise or silent. The Society of Professional Journalists notes in its code that "plagiarism is dishonest and unacceptable." The newly adopted Statement of Ethical Principles for the Associated Press Managing Editors simply says "the newspaper should not plagiarize words or images." The old code of ethics said nothing. The statement of principles from the American Society of Newspaper Editors doesn't mention plagiarism, and the American Society of Magazine Editors has neither a code of ethics nor a statement of principles on the subject.

In the absence of any industry-wide guidelines, editors are pretty much on their own to judge the offense and punish it as they wish. Some may use it to get rid of a reporter they don't like, or others may bend over backwards to retain a valued staff member. (Some employers may use a plagiarism charge as an excuse to fire a reporter, says Newspaper Guild president Charles Dale. But before proceeding to arbitration "the local would make a decision based on the facts, merits, and justice involved.") Former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee takes a hard line: "If you plagiarize, you should be terminated," he says. "An argument can be made that if you don't terminate someone, you can be stopped from firing the next person who does it." Not only did the Post fire Laura Parker, but Bradlee says the Post also refused to hire Elizabeth Wurtzel, a young writer who plagiarized some material for a story in The Dallas Morning News. Her stolen words were discovered, the piece was never published, and she was fired.he New Yorker and New York, however, later hired her to write about pop music.

Other editors are more willing to tailor the punishment to fit the gravity of the offense, an approach that results in what can appear to be uneven treatment sometimes at the same publication. The Denver Post suspended Ken Hamblin, but summarily fired art critic Irene Rawlings several years earlier when the paper discovered she had managed to typeset her by-line over two articles from The New Yorker and claim them as her own. However, Green says, "it would not have taken much more to push the Hamblin case to the capital offense category. A couple more paragraphs or another instance of the same proportion, and he'd have been gone."

Some editors may wait until the second offense or a repeated pattern of theft appears before dismissing a writer. In late 1990, the Toronto Globe and Mail suspended Deirdre Kelly, the paper's dance critic, for borrowing sentences and phrases from an article in Music Magazine. An arbitration panel in a proceeding brought by the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild reduced her suspension from three weeks to one. A few months later the paper fired Kelly for another incident in which she copied a fourteen-word phrase from Maclean's to describe a figure-skating maneuver. The paper rehired her after another Guild arbitration was decided in Kelly's favor.

Sacramento Bee editor Gregory Favre fired TV columnist Bob Wisehart the second time he plagiarized. For the first offense, Wisehart got a five-month suspension even though his plagiarism involved hundreds of words taken from Stephen King's book Danse Macabre for a television column about horror shows. "I don't believe one offense is worth destroying peoples' lives and careers," Favre said. "The second time the institution of the newspaper was damaged. The integrity of the newspaper was more important than any individual." He added that Wisehart "is an extraordinarily talented young man" whose "original work was better than what he copied."

And therein lies one of the ironies of plagiarism. Many writers who borrow from others are talented in their own right and have no need to steal. "You cannot escape the conclusion there's a psychological dimension to it," says Thomas Mallon, literary editor for GQ and author of Stolen Words, a book about plagiarism. (Wisehart, for example, landed in a mental hospital after he was fired and recently wrote a remorseful account of his experience for the Sacramento News & Review.)

Peter Shaw, who wrote a probing piece on "Plagiary" for The American Scholar in 1982, points out that writers who plagiarize tend to do it more than once and sometimes break other literary rules as well. Indeed that was the case in some of the incidents CJR examined. Shaw also notes that plagiarism most closely resembles kleptomania in that the stolen passages may not be needed and the person taking them has a wish to be caught.

It is another irony that many incidents involve columnists and critics, writers who above all others are supposed to supply their own literary voices that readers expect to hear. Perhaps this is because words have become a commodity, suggests Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's. "As journalists come to be more like politicians, their work is interchangeable, and the individual voice is harder and harder to find," he says. "It's a gradual debasement of the written word."

Plagiarism, too, may be part of an evolving journalistic culture that has come to rely heavily on borrowing and quoting from other publications as a substitute for original research. Reporters also tend to use the same sources who offer the same pithy quote or put the same spin on an issue. When that happens, ownership of the words is less clear. Some editors further muddy authorship of a piece by patching paragraphs from wire services into bylined articles. Electronic technology also makes it easy for, say, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to use paragraphs from the San Jose Mercury News, something that would have been much harder to do before computers. In other words, a lot of unattributed material makes its way into the news but may never be considered plagiarism unless some sharp-eyed reader or an aggrieved media organization spots the similarities.

When journalists do get caught, their acts of contrition are the apologies they offer. Invariably they are confessions of mistakes that were unintentional, accidental, sloppy, or inadvertent. Ruth Shalit, an associate editor at The New Republic, told CJR that her use of several nearly verbatim passages from a story in the Legal Times about a Justice Department attorney was the result of an electronic fumble in which material from one computer screen flashed to another simply with the touch of a key. Bob Hepburn told his readers "I simply forgot where I got the actual wording." Mark Hornung blamed "deadline pressures" and "writer's block." Michael Kramer excused his error with a compliment to the author of the appropriated passage, saying "your felicitous phrase clearly stuck in my mind."

Accidental copying can happen, of course, but a publication's fact-checking procedures ought to kick in sooner or later. In any case, transferring information from one document to another requires several steps that should warn a writer that attribution is in order. "There just isn't a very good excuse for it," says GQ's Mallon.

If writers can glibly explain away their sins, some publications also soft-pedal the offense by cloaking it in euphemisms, appearing to avoid responsibility altogether - a problem Mallon found in academic plagiarism as well. Editors' Notes, for instance, often avoid the "P" word. Time called the Michael Kramer incident a "regrettable lapse." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in revealing that one of its writers, Renee Stovsky, had used four paragraphs from the San Jose Mercury News, noted that the paper "does not condone the improper appropriation of the work of others." The New York Times said that Fox Butterfield's report was "improperly dependent" on The Boston Globe. The New Republic noted that material in Ruth Shalit's article "was not attributed" and that "Shalit acknowledges her debt." The Rocky Mountain News didn't run an Editor's Note when it fired rock music critic Justin Mitchell (for what editor Jay Ambrose says were a "number of instances" of borrowing sentences and paragraphs) because editors were aiting the outcome of a Newspaper Guild arbitration, which ultimately went against the News. (Mitchell is currently a features copy editor at the paper.)

The Sacramento Bee and The Orlando Sentinel were more direct with their readers. The first time The Sacramento Bee disciplined Bob Wisehart, it used the word "plagiarize" in its public statements; the second time it told readers "a critical ethical mistake has been made." The Sentinel called Bob Morris's theft an "egregious act."

Still, some publications are loath to discuss plagiarism in public. The Chicago Sun-Times refused to talk to CJR. "We really don't discuss personnel matters here," explained Penny Williams-Martin, an assistant to the editor. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch refused to discuss the punishment it gave Renee Stovsky, who is currently a staff writer in the paper's feature department. "I'm not going to tell you what specifically happened to her," said Post-Dispatch editor William Woo. "There was internal action taken. We take internal actions on a wide variety of matters that have to do with how well men and women do their jobs. They are between us and their personnel file. They are not between us and our readers or the readers of another publication." Scott Shuger, a free-lance writer who has written about the Chen case, said that eleven newspapers and magazines (CJR was not among them) rejected his story before he found a home for it in Forbes MediaCritic. "It was considered inside baseball," Shuger recalls. "There'sn unstated reciprocity agreement. You don't write about my plagiarism. I don't write about yours."

This "circle-the-wagons" mentality is as inexcusable as plagiarism itself, given what journalists do. Reporters didn't think twice about holding Senator Joseph Biden to the highest standard of honesty when they revealed that he had plagiarized material for a campaign speech, a story that helped drive him out of the 1988 presidential race.

Indeed, the APME Statement of Ethical Principles says a newspaper "should report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions and individuals."

If journalists are to gain (or regain) credibility, the profession's response to its own transgressions has to be commensurate with the outrage expressed when another profession fails to police itself; it cannot simply mirror the frayed ethical code society has come to accept. Perhaps then there will be a more satisfactory answer to Susan Youngwood's question.