rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Sloppiness and plagiarism do not serve the truth

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

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

Help make rabble sustainable. Please consider supporting our work with a monthly donation. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.