The Slate, The Bulletin and The Plagiarist

slate-logo.jpgOver the past few days, the Internet has been buzzing about a recent article by Jody Rosen at the Slate entitled “Dude, You Stole My Article: How I investigated a suspicious alt weekly.

According to Rosen, he was tipped off of a likely plagiarism of his work by Mark Williams, a writer for The Bulletin, a small weekly newspaper from Montgomery County in Texas.

Unable to contact the author of the story, Rosen contacted the publisher of The Bulletin, Mike Ladyman, who promised to look into the matter. However, Rosen kept digging and, after going through some of Williams’ articles over the past few years, discovered over a dozen other cases of likely plagiarism.

Rosen contacted Ladyman a second time with this news, but Ladyman brushed it off, saying that the matter was being handled. Then, contact was dropped and Ladyman failed to respond to multiple emails or calls. Concerned that The Bulletin might not exist, he obtained a copy from the area’s daily newspaper and analyzed the articles in it, finding that everything in the paper, quite literally, was a likely plagiarism.

However, it wasn’t until the story was posted on Slate a few days ago that things got very interesting. The issue exploded across the Internet, resulting in the closure of The Bulletin’s Web site.

But, in a strange twist, it was the author’s words at the end of the article that have garnered much of the press and the most controversy. It is strange to think that, though the author believes this may be, statistically, greatest plagiarism scandal in the annals of American journalism, it is his viewpoints on how this relates to the Web that have caused the most stir in some circles.

Controversial Words

It was at the end of the article, when Rosen stopped telling the story and started reflecting upon what happened that he said the following:

But perhaps the Bulletin is merely on-trend—or even ahead of its time. The Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, and Real Clear Politics have made names and money by sifting through RSS feeds; Tina Brown and Barry Diller are preparing the launch of their own news aggregator. Mike Ladyman and company may simply be bringing guerilla-style 21st-century content aggregation to 20th-century print media: publishing the Napster of newspapers.

This likening of well-respected blogs to a plagiarist newspaper has angered many. One blogger called it curmudgeonly, another hinted that linking was the antidote to plagiarism in journalism and still another called the quote a “Throwaway line in a story about an actual plagiarism case.

Rosen, for his part, has said that the quote was intended to be “ironic” and was supposed to be a joke. However, joke or not, the quote has cast a shadow on the rest of the article in many of the conversations around the Web, something that is unfortunate considering the work and attention to detail that went into the rather stunning findings in the article itself.

Sympathy for the Author

slashdot-logo.jpgPersonally, I find it very hard to attack Rosen. Not only do I believe the quote was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but I found myself in a similar situation over two years ago with my article “The ‘New’ Plagiarism“.

In that case, I had attempted to write an article about a controversial perspective on blockquotting. The result was that many misunderstood the article as me expressing my own viewpoints, something that was not the case.

Still, the article hit the front page of Slashdot and I took quite a beating over it for several weeks. However, I blame myself for it. Not only was both the article and the headline poorly written, but I never clearly explained what I was trying to do. I can fault no one for walking away with the wrong impression.

In the end, I took my licks, learned my lesson and moved on. Today, that article would never appear on this site.

The discovery that Rosen has made is that people do not like being accused of plagiarism, even jokingly. Many bloggers follow the example of the blogs he mentions and some took it personally when he connected them with a plagiarist.

Many might consider this negative since it has taken much of the light off of the very real and very disconcerting actions of The Bulletin, but I think of it as a positive sign. After all, it shows clearly that, despite many claiming the contrary, there is still a very high value placed on original thought and on giving proper credit.

We may be in a remix culture, but clearly bloggers, on the whole, still value creativity and original authorship.

Conclusions

For me, the bottom line is simple. Currently, there is a very big plagiarism scandal in the world of print and online journalism, one where questions are not being answered and the accused seems to be determined to cover up what happened.

This needs to be addressed and dealt with quickly, my hope is that, with the pressure on The Bulletin for answers, they will eventually be forced to explain what exactly took place.

However, it appears that a misfire of a joke from the author of the report has dampened and distracted from what can be adequately described as some of the best plagiarism investigation performed in some time.

It was a foolish quip that had no place in that article, but now it risks becoming the headline to the story.

Hopefully, that joke can be put aside and the real headline can be allowed to shine more brightly. But even if it isn’t, I still think something valuable was learned.

Perhaps, in the end, the lesson runs a bit deeper than the fact there was a weekly paper in Texas with a lot of likely plagiarisms. Perhaps it can teach us something about our modern culture and what we value as an artistic and journalistic community.

6 Responses to The Slate, The Bulletin and The Plagiarist

  1. filmgirl says:

    Joking or not (and though I buy that there was a sardonic quality to the quip, I don’t think the intention was to be merely ironic or humorous), there is SOME truth to what Rosen said. Perhaps he shouldn’t have named the blogs/aggregators he named, as they tend to actually have much better disclosure, transparency and “credit” qualities than many, many blogs (I’m sure in part because they are so large/well-read), but I don’t have a problem with the overall truth.

    It is a shame that this non-controversy controversy has the potential to take down a much bigger (and more important) story, and for that, I can only hope that the complainers can grow-up and come to terms with whatever insecurity issues they have over not writing for a “real” news organization and focus on being better than the fray and adhering to standards that even the traditional media often misses.

    On the actual story, I found the entire saga compelling, sad, and unfortunately utterly predictable. It was only by using Google and Nexus engines to search for exact passages that the entire breadth of the plagiarism was uncovered – meaning the plagiarizer went through an awful lot of trouble to concoct pieces that were both plagiarized and more difficult to prove or uncover. I guess I find the whole thing predictable because I saw much of the same behavior in college; many of my peers would do the exact same thing, glom together various pieces from different articles/websites/reviews/what have you and change it just enough so that if the professor did use a crawler to try to snuff out plagiarized texts (and only a few of my professors actually did, usually in the Speech and Communications classes — though there were pretty strict policies in my film classes too), they could beat the system. Sadly, despite having a pretty strong plagiarism policy, most professors didn’t even keep stuff on file or have the know-how (or really, interest) to check things to begin with. I did have one English professor who was VERY strict on plagiarism — even of the unintended/really benign variety. A friend of mine used like three words, a phrase really, that had been mentioned in the Cliff’s Notes for a book in which we were writing critical essays. She got an F on the paper for 3 words. Outwardly, I took my friend’s side that the punishment was really harsh (though she could have flunked the class over it), but internally, I asked myself I would have cited the phrase, and my answer was yes (that or I wouldn’t have used it at all) and I think that it was an important lesson for a student to learn.

    My rambling point is that perhaps if we had better education and enforcement of these sorts of things in journalism school, there would be fewer instances of it happening in the media.

  2. Though I agree with you that he wasn’t likely being purely ironic or humorous, it is hard for me to say he was being completely serious either. There may be some buried truth in what he said, but I don’t think the sites he listed were good examples nor do I think that it was the right way to go about making the point. It was a minor, forgivable mistake in my opinion, but an error nonetheless.

    I agree completely though that any flub made int his area needs to be forgotten immediately and the focus put back on the full story, which I also agree is compelling, important and very well-written.

    As a recent graduate of a journalism program (2002), I can say safely that I received a very heavy dose of plagiarism education, both in my writing classes and in my law & ethics course. Still, though I didn’t hear about any of my peers doing what you said they’ve done at your school, I can’t say it didn’t likely happen. At that time especially, plagiarism detection was weak and complicated so I have little doubt the system could be gamed.

    However, I don’t think better education would have helped in this case (perhaps the Jayson Blair scandal would be a bit better for this point) as this is clearly something well above and beyond your typical journalism scandal. Here you have a newspaper where ever article, likely for many years back, contained suspect material. This could not exist without tolerance from the editor and publisher.

    The problem is worse if you consider that there is some reason to suspect that the “writer” in the case does not exist at all. Remember, he could not be tracked down anywhere in the area. It could have been the editor or even the publisher using a nom de plume (nom de plagiarist?) and no amount of training can fix that level of lying and misuse. That is just flat out dishonesty, if it turns out to be true.

    So, while I agree we need better plagiarism education in all school curriculums, not just journalism, I doubt it would have helped in this case. Bad people do bad things and no amount of education fixes that.

    Thank you very much for your comment and your thoughts!

  3. David Mastio says:

    I think the “joke” was taken wrong BECAUSE the rest of the article was so incredibly detailed and meticulous.

  4. I think you might have a point there. The rest of the article was very professional and matter of fact, excellent journalism, and the joke was likely taken seriously because of it. Perhaps a reminder to all of us to maintain tone…

    But yes, an excellent point.

  5. David Mastio says:

    I think the “joke” was taken wrong BECAUSE the rest of the article was so incredibly detailed and meticulous.

  6. [...] Bailey, “The Slate, The Bulletin, and The Plagiarist,” Plagiarism Today, August 8, [...]

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