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All Someone Else’s Words?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on May 17, 2009 4 Comments

Today’s Op-Ed column in the New York Times by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Maureen Dowd, entitled “Cheney, Master of Pain,” is the talk of the blogosphere. The big story is that Dowd plagiarized the following section which appears in today’s column:

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

from Josh Marshall’s post last week at TPM (Talking Points Memo):

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The Daily Kos has been tracking this unfold, in a front page story entitled “Very Serious Journalist plagiarizes blogger.” Dowd’s email response, as the DK post notes, was to agree that a mistake had been made, and to state that she didn’t actually read Marshall’s post, and that she was talking to a friend who “suggested” she make the point. The “friend” never mentioned it was from Marshall’s column. She followed it up with another response, stating that the text had not been dictated to her, that the point had been made in the “back and forth discussing [of] the topic of the column.” One commentor on DK is not sufficiently convinced of this point, and notes that it is highly suspicious that the “commas fall in the same places.” In a twist of irony, a Huffington Post piece points out that Dowd herself “exposed then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s plagiarism of British politician Neil Kinnock’s speeches.”

The fact that such a renowned journalist “plagiarized” (as the meme goes) from a blogger is forefronted in the discussions of this issue in some sites. The story title of the DK post (see above) is very revealing in this context. As mainstream newspapers struggle in these hard economic times, and blogs become more and more powerful, the MMS vs blogosphere tensions have heightened, and these tensions show no signs of abating any time soon.

As more and more texts are made available and accessible online, it becomes easier to catch instances of plagiarism (Dowd was “caught out” almost instantly) or (inadvertent or intentional) “lifting.” In the Dowd case, her attempts at dousing the flames is-at least in my own eyes-unconvincing and strange. Who is this “friend”? And why does she feel it is okay to type someone else’s words without attribution, even if it is her friend? How, like the commentor points out, is the text almost an exact duplicate of Marshall’s words? As an avid reader of her column, I feel cheated. There are times when I discuss potential posts with Dave and Youki, for example, but I could not imagine using their words without attribution. Dowd’s column now has an attribution, with these lines at the bottom:

An earlier version of this column failed to attribute a paragraph about the timeline for prisoner abuse to Josh Marshall’s blog at Talking Points Memo.

There is no apology here (I might have expected the word “regrettably,” for example), and what jumps out at me is how the “failure” was on the part of “this column,” not the author, and that the problem was a failure of attribution, rather than the more agentive act of deliberate lifting (Can one happen without the other? Leave your comments below). A clean, one sentence statement which does little to clarify under what circumstances/context the lifting occurred, and how. What really boggles the mind is why Dowd, with the kind of visibility she has, would risk her reputation by using someone else’s words verbatim. How utterly disappointing.

Update 1: Here are some headlines from the ‘Net: “Maureen Dowd in Hot Water, Admits Wrongdoing, ‘NYT’ Will Correct“; Dowd lifts TPM passage; updates NYT column; and the classic, Maureen Dowd Was Copying Off Of TPM Josh Marshall’s Paper.

Update 2: The statement that appeared at the bottom of the Times‘ page has now been taken down.

Update 3: The “correction” statement has now reappeared, worded slightly differently:

Correction: May 18, 2009
Maureen Dowd’s column on Sunday, about torture, failed to attribute a paragraph about the timeline for prisoner abuse to Josh Marshall’s blog at Talking Points Memo.

Update 4: Language Log tackles the incident here. Hat Tip: Megan McArdle at The Atlantic.

More on plagiarism on FIT here:

Memoirs: Fact or Fiction?

The Plagiarism Checker

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4 Responses to “All Someone Else’s Words?”

  1. daveski on: 18 May 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Hm, I agree with you, what an utterly disappointing incident. One wonders HOW someone with Dowd’s kind of visibility (not her political views–these seem quite irrelevant to the question of principles of this sort) could think of doing this in the first place. Everything is so terribly, wonderfully, irreversibly, hyperlinked, cross-referenced, searchable…if you’re not in the business of writing your own stuff, at every turn, it’s time to get out of the business, imo.

    At the same time, this might raise interesting questions about how this very inter-linked-ness of things on the internet is placing new pressures on the very notion of “plagiarism” (as well as different norms defining conventions for ‘originality’ and ‘copying’ across discourse communities).

    Will words ever become so photographic that people won’t think twice about standing at the same spot, looking at the same scene, and taking the ‘same picture’?

    I hope not.

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 18 May 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Very interesting points, ‘ski…I find your last question-about photographing-very interesting. I wonder-even if you’re “standing at the same spot, looking at the same scene…” are you taking the same picture? Even if two pictures are nearly identical, the eye of the photographer would be focused on (I imagine) different things, and those viewing/interpreting the pictures could be different. I guess what I am trying to ask is: can you ever take the same picture twice?

  3. Kim Witten on: 22 May 2009 at 8:41 am

    What really boggles the mind is why Dowd, with the kind of visibility she has, would risk her reputation by using someone else’s words verbatim. How utterly disappointing.

    (This is to say, I couldn’t agree with you more.)

  4. Usree Bhattacharya on: 22 May 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks, Kim….wonderful to see you here! Hope you three had a wonderful wrap-up to the semester!

    Yeah, this was quite a let down…

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