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Plagiarism And Journalistic Caste

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This is a very good analysis of the implications of the plagiarism in Jill Abramson’s new book, and what happens when journalists/writers become a big enough deal that they aren’t really expected to write the books with their names on them that they’re paid a lot of money to write:

If he’s a poorly informed law professor, though, Sprigman is well suited to be an elite journalist. His defense of Abramson is the classic big-timer’s defense against evidence of plagiarism: she couldn’t be guilty of stealing other people’s work, because other people’s work doesn’t matter. What she duplicated were “basic facts”—which is an easy thing to say, after someone else has gone out and collected and organized those facts. The message is that the sentences Abrams stole weren’t good enough as writing to count as stolen property (though they were good enough to put down in a book as if they had been her own writing).

It’s the same defense Abramson mounted in 2008, as managing editor of the Times, when Jack Shafer of Slate caught a Times reporter lifting material from Bloomberg, which was that reporter’s second offense. Abramson told Shafer that this infraction wasn’t really plagiarism, but that the writer

did not fully understand Times policy of not using wire boilerplate and giving credit when we do make use of such material. As I mentioned to you, other papers do permit unattributed use of such material. He should not have inserted wire material into his Times coverage without attribution. That said, because the new examples do not involve many words or an original thought, the transgression does not seem to be as serious as the first instance.

In that case, Abramson managed, or managing-editored, to have it both ways: the Times had a policy that reporters shouldn’t do such things, but there was nothing wrong with doing them. The lifted text was “wire material” or “boilerplate,” not anything worth stealing.

The boilerplate or “basic facts” excuse is unconvincing—at best, it’s epistemological fraud, presenting someone else’s selection of facts as a sample of the writer’s own knowledge—but high-end journalists embrace it because it’s shaped by a structural truth: whether or not there are separate classes of writing, with separate value, there are definitely separate classes of writers.

It’s not the status of the words that defines the offense, it’s the status of the person who originally wrote the words compared to the person who copied them. That’s why people who otherwise profess to care about professional standards are rallying around Abramson. Jill Abramson can’t seriously be a plagiarist, because plagiarism isn’t a serious offense when people like Jill Abramson do it. Fareed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, Juan Williams—above a certain level, a public figure is immune to any real career consequences for stealing work from the lower castes.

One unclear point around Abramson’s plagiarism is exactly how many layers of other people’s work were involved. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post reported that in the acknowledgments of Merchants of Truth, Abramson wrote that an assistant “drafted portions of this book.” If she has to, she can always say she presented someone else’s writing as her own, without knowing that that person was passing off a third person’s writing as their own.

And that should be enough to settle it. Famous writers are factories, and a factory can always find somewhere to dump its mess. The little people just have to live with being dumped on.

See also this Yglesias follow-up thread.  This amount of laziness and sloppiness in a book making Grand Pronouncements about complementary journalism is [chef’s kiss.]

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