May 17, 2009

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I know I'm prone to railing against the plummeting quality of the MainStreamMedia™ (much to commenter cm's annoyance) but Maureen Dowd - probably the most widely-read columnist at the NYTimes, just lifted an entire paragraph from another blogger and put it in her latest piece (now corrected, of course).
You can see the side-by-side comparison here, but the most delusory part of this is Dowd's explanation:

josh is right. I didn't read his blog last week, and didn't have any idea he had made that point until you informed me just now.
i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent -- and I assumed spontaneous -- way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column.
but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me.
we're fixing it on the web, to give josh credit, and will include a note, as well as a formal correction tomorrow.

Which, of course, would lead anyone to ask... um, did your friend dictate the blog's contents word-for-word to you? To which she responded:

no, we were going back and forth discussing the topic of the column and he made this point and i thought it was a good one and wanted to weave it in;
i just didn't realize it was josh marshall's point, and we've now given him credit
my friend didn't want to be quoted; but of course i would have been happy to give credit to another writer, as i often do

Now, I don't like to pick on Maureen Dowd, as I think she's one of the good guys, and I've agreed with her outrages large and small. The worst I've ever said of her is that she thinks of a painfully clever phrase first, then writes a column around it - and if that were illegal, they would have taken this blog away from me back in 2002.

But she is doing nobody any favors with this kind of low-rent, sloppy "attribution". I love the New York Times and despite its many flaws, it's the Paper of Record that this country desperately needs, as (perhaps) all others fall away. 150 years from now, our descendents will be able to see their great-great-great-great grandparents' wedding as having happened on a particular day in a particular place. In the meantime, it's the newspaper that has to be the grownup, the Old Gray Lady by which everything else is measured.

Anyone with more than two fingers can see a "cut and paste" for what it is, and Dowd's paragraph in question is - except for a couple words - a carbon copy down to the punctuation. There was no "friend" "discussing" the "point", and just saying that makes me embarrassed.

Three things could have happened:
1) Maureen Dowd has no idea how plagiarism works in the post-Google era

2) She's farming out her columns to be written by staffers with little oversight

3) After a week full of television appearances and other media events, she quickly hammered out an obligatory column on Dick Cheney, and took a paragraph from previous research - or an email from friends - and absent-mindedly pasted it into her file, and hit "send".

If it's any of the above, JUST SAY SO. You don't get to be casual about this, not at the New York Fucking Times. You don't get to say "oh man, it's all cool, I was just talking to some dude who mentioned blah blargh bleughgh". Your liberal readers are all moral relativists and will cut you abnormal amounts of slack, but only if you're honest with them.

If not, then fuck it. There are thousands of columnists and passionate writers who would give their left pancreas to have that gig. That's one lesson I've learned here in Hollywood: if you've got the Dream Job, behave like you deserve it.

Posted by Ian Williams at May 17, 2009 11:02 PM
Posted by: CM at May 18, 2009 3:59 AM

Awww, so honored for the namecheck! I really needed a smile this morning. I don't mind criticism of the 'plummeting' quality of the media -- of course it's plummeting; newspapers have no money and no time to work on woodward/bernstein investigative pieces -- but sometimes the remaining media is all that's left keeping gov't honest. If not, they're at least trying, but people aren't reading the important stories and getting outraged enough. Instead they turn to reality shows and celebrity blogs.

But as for today's point. I looked at the comparison. Yes, pretty close, and her explanation doesn't really go far enough to explain that. One of the scariest things in a writer's mind is accidental plagiarism, reading something, liking it, and then years later putting it in a book, not remembering you actually got it from someone else. But these are too close.

She's been around a while and this is the first time she's being accused of something like this, so maybe she just goofed.

Posted by: mom at May 18, 2009 5:10 AM

When will people learn that the coverup is always worse than the crime?

My take: she saw that, copied it into her notes, liking the idea, with no thought of lifting it whole. And then later thought she had come up with it on her own. The reason I think it was not a deliberate cut and past, hoping to get away with it, is that she's too smart to do something like that and think it wouldn't be noticed.

Had she 'fessed up, with a "duh"... I messed up. I saw this in my notes and thought it was mine. Sorry folks, but these words belong to.." I would have been sorry she had embarrassed herself, but shrugged it off as an honest mistake.

But her convoluted explanation has shaved about 60% off any respect I had for her.

Posted by: Salem at May 18, 2009 5:49 AM

Say, that reminds me... Lewis Grizzard's response to being asked why the Newspaper wasn't more truthful and accurate. "Hell, it's only 50 cents. WE can give you truthful and accurate,.... cost ya $3 Bucks!"

I can't properly attribute this quote, but I'm pretty sure it was from one of these books:

"Shoot Low Boys, their Ridin' Shetland Ponies."
"Elvis is Dead, and I Don't Fell so Good Myself"

Posted by: josie at May 18, 2009 6:02 AM

Although I agree with MD's point-of-view, I am not a huge fan of her writing. I once bought one of her books and found it full of predictable writing full of unsubstantiated hyperbole (i.e. she didn’t do a good job building her argument at a level that supported her hyperbole). I couldn’t wait to be done with it and get it out of my house.

I agree with you that this is blatant plagiarism. I think, however, in pointing out her error, you have also erred by not linking to Mr. Marshall's work. Did I miss a link to his bio, his platform, or his original post?

Posted by: josie at May 18, 2009 6:05 AM

OK, I do see a link to My bad.

Posted by: jason savage at May 18, 2009 6:24 AM

I like seeing Dowd getting her face rubbed it in. A more smug elitist it is hard to think of. And I hate the word elitist....

I always find it very illuminating when her column runs alongside Friedman's. She's busy coining nicknames and leaping from one wordplay to the next, and Friedman is trying to lay out in very simple terms the issues of the day. I don't think Dowd has been remotely relevant since 9/11.

Posted by: Anne at May 18, 2009 6:41 AM

Busted. Totally.

Posted by: tregen at May 18, 2009 8:33 AM

Off subject - thoughts on Obama?

Posted by: chm at May 18, 2009 9:46 AM

Not sure I understand how Google changes what constitutes plagiarism.

Posted by: Paul G at May 18, 2009 10:16 AM

If I had a blog, I would steal this post.

Posted by: Rebecca at May 18, 2009 4:01 PM

Okay, okay I stole your post on Friday. I cut and pasted it and sent it to a friend because of our crazy mutual friend. I credited you as "a friend". Of course, I don't work for the New York Times, so I thought it was okay. So I apologize for not giving you full credit.

Posted by: T.J. at May 18, 2009 7:15 PM

"Off subject - thoughts on Obama?"

The Daily Show last week nailed him good. He's caving on the rest of torture pictures, keeping "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," reviving the Gitmo trials ("Now, with more due process!"). Just like I've always said, once you look past their speeches and hyperbole, there's no real difference between Repubs and Dems. They just differ slightly on which of our rights they want to trample, what programs they want to spend our money on, and how they'll pay for it (or delay paying for it).

Posted by: Ian at May 19, 2009 12:16 AM

T.J., by any reasoned analysis, the Dems and the Repubs are still light-years apart. Obama isn't tacking left enough for many of us progressives, but to throw them all in the same bathwater is ridiculous. Are you seriously saying that Obama is no different than Boehner, Kantor, Bachmann, Limbaugh, Palin, McConnell, Coburn, Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice and Ashcroft? C'mon now.

Posted by: T.J. at May 19, 2009 6:34 AM

Well, OK, they offend me more than the Dems do, currently.

Hey, and while it pains me to say so, and it says at least as much about the prior administration as it does him, remember that Ashcroft stood for the rule of law from his hospital bed, while Gonzales tried to pressure him.

Posted by: eric g. at May 20, 2009 12:52 AM

Ironic from the woman who busted Joe Biden for plagiarism.

Since she's correcting things anyway, she should replace the Glamour Shots-esque photo that accompanies her column on the Times website.

Posted by: oliver at May 22, 2009 7:06 AM

Or maybe she's an alcoholic. Who knows what she doesn't want to admit. Anyway, it's not like she's ever been an advocate for transparency.

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