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Plagiarism As A Subset of Hackwork

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Paul Waldman has a smart take on the plagiarism in Juan Williams’s column. Or, more precisely, the plagiarism that appeared in the column with Juan Williams’s nominal byline:

But here’s what I can fault Williams for: What he actually got caught doing was an act of double plagiarism, even though only one of the acts of plagiarism is considered problematic. After all, plagiarism is taking someone else’s words and passing them off as your own without attribution. Williams does that whenever his assistant writes something for him that then appears verbatim in his column, which from his explanation sounds like something he does regularly. It’s just that this time, his assistant passed off CAP’s words as his own to Williams, and Williams then passed off CAP’s words as his own to his readers, when he thought he was only passing off his assistant’s words as his own, which otherwise nobody would know about.

Relatedly, this is why it’s not terribly surprising that Jonah Lehrer turned out to be an outright fabulist and plagiarist not just of self; when someone is too lazy to check out basic facts about the central anecdotes in their high-advance books, making stuff up and using other people’s work is the logical next step.

The other depressing thing about Williams’s double plagiarism is that Williams can’t even be bothered to write his own banalities while people who are still actual journalists are being asked even by financially secure organizations to write for “exposure.” I don’t even understand how Williams’s column makes narrow economic sense. When was the last time a Juan Williams column went viral for its content? If the Hill dropped his column tomorrow, would anyone stop reading the publication? Would anyone even notice?

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  • David Hunt

    If the Hill dropped his column tomorrow, would anyone stop reading the publication? Would anyone even notice?

    I expect that Juan Williams would…or maybe just his assistant would.

  • Chatham

    Economic sense for the publication or for the individual making the decisions? If they keep Juan Williams and readership went down, then it could be dismissed as “the death of print.” If they fired him and picked up a good writer without the socialite qualifications? They could well get push back.

    Also keep in mind that moving towards meritocracy might not be beneficial for the people making these decisions. You want the required qualifications to be ones that put you and your friends in a good light. Glass houses and all that.

  • Thirty Twice

    Make economic sense? Of course it does. He’s on teevee.

  • c u n d gulag

    Sure, Williams is guilty of “plagiarism” – even “double plagiarism.”
    And he should be put on “Double-Open Probation.”

    But whenever I read any Conservative’s column, I ALWAYS feel like I’ve read it before.
    The subject, the tone, the meter, the anger, the frustration, any “analysis,” seem all the same to me.

    I suspect there are probably only a handful of original Conservative columns at all – and that all of them come from the late 1950’s, to the mid-late 1960’s.
    And the issues of those days have been blanked out, while the rest of what was written, was left intact.
    And all that today’s Conservative pundits do, is fill-in those blanks with today’s names and issues – and update the language a bit with some modern terminology.

    Of course, this can lead to comic results, like with Ross Douthat and Jonah Goldberg – where William F. Buckley’s spinning in his grave remains, sadly, an untapped green energy source.

  • Hanspeter

    Waldman says plagiarism is “taking someone else’s words and passing them off as your own without attribution”

    Dictionary.com/Random House Dictionary, though, has a (IMO) stronger definition that says it’s the unauthorized use of someone else’s words. Attribution gets you authorization for most fair use cases, but conversely gaining authorization doesn’t mean that you must attribute.

    William’s assistant is just a ghostwriter. And depending on the terms of their contract, there might not be an attribution clause in there. We can mock Williams all we want about the banality of the columns published under his name (whether written by him or an assistant) and his laziness for not writing his own stuff, but calling the columns plagiarism because he did not personally say/write/think those words is warping the meaning of the word.

    The copied column is clearly plagiarism, the other ones are just useless (for actually furthering social thought; they’re clearly useful at some level to his publisher as other comments have noted), not ‘non-problematic plagiarism’ (to use Waldman’s phrase).

    • John

      Right. Employing a ghost writer is not plagiarism.

      • rea

        Employing a ghost writer isn’t plagiarism in many contexts, but (1) there some contexts in which it isn’t alowed (e. g., term papers), and (2) the deal is, if you allow it to be published under your name, you own it. You don’t get to say, “Oh, my ghost writer did that, not me.” (See also, Ron Paul and racist articles)

        • Tybalt

          Correct. If you are aware that the material is going out under your name (as with Williams and Paul) then you own it.

          • rea

            I had in mind my own role as a judge’s law clerk, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

          • Hanspeter

            Absolutely, which is why the column where the assistant copied from CAP is getting Williams in trouble for plagiarism, but calling the other columns plagiarism is distorting the meaning of the term.

        • John

          Hiring someone to write a term paper for you is cheating, but I don’t think it’s plagiarism.

          As to 2, I basically agree. If it’s going out under your name, you’re responsible for it.

          • John

            I’d add that plagiarism in a term paper is also cheating. I think the difference is that plagiarism is an offense against the person you’re plagiarizing from; cheating is an offense against your teacher and fellow students. In the context of a college class, plagiarism is always cheating, but hiring someone to write your paper isn’t an offense against the person you hired to write it for you, so it’s not plagiarism.

    • NonyNony

      Isn’t there a problem with a professional columnist employing a ghostwriter though? I mean, it’s one thing for someone who isn’t a professional writer to employ a ghostwriter, but it seems like another thing entirely for someone whose job is to write to be employing one.

      Maybe not. But it really seems like pundits are paid for two things – having opinions and being able to express those opinions clearly and convincingly. And lately it seems like we’re finding out that many pundits will have whatever opinion you want them to have if you pay them enough, and they have to pay someone else to write their columns for them anyway. What, exactly, do these guys get paid for then?

      • Bruce Baugh

        Presenting conventional wisdom in a manner attractive to a designated audience.

      • If readers are looking for a personal approach that stays the same across different issues, or for a personal take based on personal experience, I think finding out someone else wrote their columns would eliminate some of the reasons for reading them, especially if the other person was younger and less experience. Apparently these were stats, and probably this guy doesn’t have the same kind of appeal Maureen Dowd does. But I’d find it weird to find out Dowd was farming out jokes to college interns.

        I know of one op-ed writer, presumably the personal kind of writer, whose tone/style and set of preoccupations changes markedly three or four times a year. There could be all sorts of reasons for that, though.

    • commie atheist

      Jerzy Kosinski was accused of copying other writers, as well as using ghost writers, all of which seemed to fall under the category of “plagiarism.”

      • commie atheist
        • John

          In Kosinski’s case, the accusation of plagiarism seems pretty clearly distinct from the accusation of using ghost writers.

  • Boots Day

    One wonders if the Hill is at all put out by the fact that they paid to get a column written by the famous journalist Juan Williams, and instead got one written by an unknown intern. I suspect that as long as they have something with the name of a Famous Journalist slapped on it, they don’t really care.

    • JKTHs

      The Hill’s just a fishwrap so no, I don’t think they care

      • Julian

        Why wrap fish in newspaper? Is it cheaper than waxpaper? Some sort of depression-era substitute?

        • Anonymous

          Newspaper is actually quite clean. And cheap.

          • Julian

            you use the word “actually” as though I disputed either newspaper’s cleanliness or cheapness, which I didn’t.

        • Tybalt

          Also, it’s absorbent, meaning the grease won’t pool on the fish and it stays crisp. (“Fishwrap” in the newspaper context means fish and chips, no? I don’t recall ever getting fish from a fishmonger’s wrapped in newspaper…)

          • Julian

            Thank you – I should’ve gone straight to Wikipedia, where I would’ve learned that you’re right

      • DrDick

        Is there any evidence that Williams can actually write? They may actually be getting a better deal this way.

        • commie atheist

          Unless he paid someone else to write this, he’s actually written some good stuff.

          Ha, I see that Amazon says Williams was “assisted by the production team for the PBS-TV series on which this book is based.”

    • Lego My Eggo

      Whether he realizes it or not, JW is a Professional Token Black Guy. He has no value to Fox, WSJ, the Hill, etc except to play the role of the Reasonable Negro.

      In this light, it’s entirely possible the Hill editors write (or arrange to have written) the column and just pay him to use his name.

      • DocAmazing

        Exactly. That’s why he’s not going to lose his gig as a result of this: he’s useful.

    • commie atheist

      Jerzy Kosinski was accused of copying other writers, as well as using ghost writers, all of which seemed to fall under the category of “plagiarism.”

      • commie atheist

        Oops, wrong sub-thread.

  • Barry

    “The other depressing thing about Williams’s double plagiarism is that Williams can’t even be bothered to write his own banalities while people who are still actual journalists are being asked even by financially secure organizations to write for “exposure.” I don’t even understand how Williams’s column makes narrow economic sense. When was the last time a Juan Williams column went viral for its content? If the Hill dropped his column tomorrow, would anyone stop reading the publication? Would anyone even notice? ”

    Almost all of this is social, and not strictly economic. They could have somebody in Bangalore write at least three quarters of pundits’ columns.

    • Hogan

      Especially a cab driver.

      • Warren Terra

        … Dammit, now I want to see a column by a cabbie who makes use of the convenient banalities supposedly uttered to him by a series of passengers …

  • Vance Maverick

    Along with this post, I’m seeing an ad for “Grammarly”, evidently a tool to “proofread your essay for grammar errors and instances of plagiarism”. Could Doris K G have been sincere when she claimed her plagiarism was unintentional?

  • patrick II

    At The Hill, as well as at Fox, Williams’ ineptitude is a feature not a bug. A truly gifted liberal writer, think Ta nehisi Coates, would not last a week in either place. Juan is there to play a role, black liberal, not to actually have anything original or insightful to say.

    • Brian Rogers

      CF Here, where he points out
      “(You may also see in this why I don’t want to be anyone’s HNIC. Ever. I don’t ever want my name raised in any conversation like that.)”

  • Sam Bagenstos

    On Facebook just now, David Bernstein pointed out that George Will’s most recent column contains, without attribution, two sentences taken (with only slight editing) from a footnote in Bernstein’s Rehabilitating Lochner book.

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