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Sloppiness and plagiarism do not serve the truth

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Plagiarism derives from the Latin word plagiarius, which literally means "kidnapped" and figuratively means "literary thief."

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the theft of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas or expressions" and presenting them as your own original work.

A journalist caught plagiarizing loses his or her reputation and has a good chance of losing their job. It is considered a cardinal sin by every reputable news organization I know.

How strange then that Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the New York Times, has been so maddeningly evasive about allegations that she repeatedly plagiarized other writers in her new book Merchants of Truth, which is an examination of the "fight for facts" in contemporary journalism in the era of Trump.

Two weeks ago, Vice News correspondent Michael Moynihan revealed in a series of tweets that at least six passages from her book were copied, nearly word for word, from work that had appeared earlier in other publications including the New Yorker, Time Out, and Columbia Journalism Review. None of those passages was attributed, leaving readers to infer that Abramson was the original author.

Interestingly, one of the plagiarized passages was lifted from The Ryerson Review of Journalism, which is a student magazine published by the school I once headed, Ryerson University's School of Journalism. It was a profile of right-wing gadfly Gavin McInnes, written in 2005.

The RRJ story said: "In August 2003, McInnes wrote a column in The American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan. In the magazine, he called young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his cronies use often) who'll believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with light skin. He laments the liberal views of most of the people who pick up his magazine, saying they're 'brainwashed by communist propaganda.'"

Abramson wrote: "He wrote a column in The American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan, calling young people a bunch of nee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his ilk often used) who would believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with white skin. He lamented the liberal views of his magazine's readers, saying they were 'brainwashed by communist propaganda.'"

That, my friends, is outright theft. It's plagiarism. It's dishonest. It fits every definition of plagiarism used and condemned by Abramson's old newspaper -- a standard she used herself when she directed the New York Times news operation: "Staff members who plagiarize or who knowingly or recklessly provide false information for publication betray our fundamental pact with our readers. We will not tolerate such behavior." A Newsroom Integrity Statement, drawn up in 1999 but still current, adds that "When we use facts gathered by any other organization, we attribute them."

Abramson initially dismissed the damning evidence when presented with it on Fox News. Asked by host Martha McCallum if she had any comment on the numerous similarities detailed by Moynihan, Abramson said "I really don't."

She added: "All I can tell you is I certainly didn't plagiarize in my book and there's 70 pages of footnotes showing where I got the information."

Asked if she thought there might be something she missed, she said "No, I don't think this is an issue at all." She accused Vice News of having a thin skin and an agenda.

Her publisher Simon & Schuster initially stood by the book but later said it would investigate Moynihan's allegations. By last week, Abramson had changed her tune somewhat. One of the writers she plagiarized, Jake Malooney, interviewed her for Rolling Stone. She apologized to him personally but admitted to only minor mistakes, which she dismissed as sloppiness, and seemed in a hurry to get off the phone.

Malooney asked her at one point, "Isn't inadvertent plagiarism still plagiarism?"

Abramson replied: "No, it isn't. I mean, you can consult your own experts. It may be that not all agree with me, but I've talked to a number of respected eminent scholars who have said that this is not a venal mistake. It's a venial mistake, which is unintentional. So, I don't know, I feel like I've answered all of these questions. So what else do you need from me?"

"Which experts did you consult?" Malooney persisted.

"I'm not gonna say," Abramson replied. "I'm not going to, you know, drag other people into this mess."

Okay, but it was a mess of her own making, and her carelessless and lack of accountability are not qualities you'd expect in a professional of the highest order.

But what stands out to me even more is that she has not explained how it happened.

In the Rolling Stone interview, she said: "I have gone back and looked and, I think, again, my error was in the process of going from first draft to typed manuscript to galley. Somehow I had numbered for myself words to footnote, and somehow in these instances -- I mean, they're mostly factual things. It's not that they jump out at me like, 'Wow, this isn't mine.' I mistook it for mine."

True professionals are not guilty of such sloppiness, if sloppiness is all it is. Neither are they so obtuse that they are unable to publicly apologize or properly explain how they will change their practices to prevent such a thing happening again.

Perhaps Abramson needs to reread the Newsroom Integrity Statement that she helped draft when she was at the New York Times:

"At a time of growing and even justified public suspicion about the impartiality, accuracy and integrity of some journalists and some journalism, it is imperative that The Times and its staff maintain the highest possible standards to insure that we do nothing that might erode readers' faith and confidence in our news columns."

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source. This column originally appeared on John's blog, www.thejournalismdoctor.ca.

Image: United States Mission Geneva/Flickr

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