The Plagiarism Scandal Without a Victim

When Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer reported that Ohio Rep. Sherrod Brown had plagiarized from a blogger when writing Sen. Mike DeWine regarding Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito’s labor record, it seemed to be the perfect plagiarism scandal. The national media quickly took notice and bloggers from all over the world quickly took up the story.

The only problem was that the original author, a well-respected blogger on labor issues named Nathan Newman, had no problem with the use of his work and refused to play the role of victim.

The result? The media tried to scandalize Mr. Newman as well, making him a part of the “scandal” and dragging his name through the mud as well.

The problem is, if the media had bothered to investigate, the scandal was really never there to start with. In their hurry to get their story, they failed to take some obvious steps and made a mockery not of Rep. Brown, but of themselves.

Is Plagiarism Sometimes Acceptable?

As I discussed in a previous article, there are some professions where plagiarism is an accepted practice. Clearly, politics is one of them. Many political organizations, including, offer letters to take and sign as if they were your own. These letters are then sent to government officials, newspapers and other media, often times without anyone being the wiser. This is, generally, considered an accepted practice that is not frowned upon.

However, even politicians themselves engage in plagiarism regularly. With the massive volume of material that your average official would have to produce in a day, plagiarism isn’t just shortcut, but a necessity. Letters are written by staff members, speeches are written by speech writers and an actual congressman, though signing their name to countless documents, probably only write a couple of pages a day.

Finally, most people who write on political topics do so not to further themselves, but to further their cause. Though this doesn’t completely excuse plagiarism, it does mean that many political writers, including Mr. Newman, release their work for any kind of reuse, even plagiarized. After all, it’s not about making a profit, but about changing the world and the more people that pick up a piece, the more impact it can have.

So, even though many have contrasted Rep. Brown’s plagiarism to what happened at the New York Times, clearly there is no comparing the two professions. When it comes to plagiarism, politicians and journalists simply come from two different worlds.

The Nature of the Crime

To further complicate the scandal, Mr. Newman, when reposting the story elsewhere, gave permission for others to reuse the work for “any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified.”

Worse still, the post in question was mostly just a list of Scalito’s cases on labor issues with. There was very little original content and most of the material can be found easily online or in government archives. Given the fact that all government documents are in the public domain and the information from them can not be copyrighted, one has to question if plagiarism is even possible.

Finally, Rep. Brown never made an attempt to to hide the source of his information. When he and his staff were approached with questions regarding it, they openly admitted that it came from Mr. Newman. There was no attempt at deception beyond, possibly, the omission of an attribution line. However, since the letter was intended for a fellow politician and politicians understand that their comrades write almost nothing that bears their name, it becomes unclear how even that was designed to fool anyone.

Should Rep. Brown and his staff have attributed the source of the information? Yes. if for no other reasons than to say thanks and to offer Sen. DeWine a chance to follow up on the information himself. It was definitely an error in judgment. Should he have asked permission to use the work? No. Permission was already granted and taking the time to ask would have been superfluous, especially given the crunch they were clearly under.

So, even though I can not justify the lack of an attribution line, this clearly isn’t a scandal revolving around a dishonest politician trying to fool the world. However, reading the newspaper reports, you’d never reach that conclusion.

The Media’s Reaction

Mr. Newman has repeatedly expressed more frustration at the media’s response to the lifting of his entry than the actual lifting. In article after article the media has used the scandal to attack Rep. Brown, a political figure Mr. Newman clearly shares a viewpoint with, and have avoided looking at the points contained in the letter.

In fact, after a journalist failed to convince Mr. Newman that he was a victim, he proceeded to slam him as well in his column on the matter.

If the journalists had simply asked Mr. Newman how he felt about the reuse of his work or delved deeper into what exactly what stolen, they would have seen that this was, at worst, an error in judgment Even I, as a stern anti-plagiarism activist, realize that not everything is cut and dry and that there are shades of gray.

Journalists, however, are in a profession based upon copyright law and where their writing is literally their livelihood. They can’t grasp why someone else would allow their work to be reused without restriction. Combine that background with the media’s love for scandal and you can see why they pounced on this story before all of the facts were clear.

On that note, I feel that it’s my personal duty to make sure that I have all of the facts before running a story and I talk with everyone that’s available before running with a story. If I’m a few days later than everyone else, that’s fine. I’d rather have my facts straight than be first to the line.

In that way, though journalists consistently slam bloggers for the lack of ethics, saying we need to learn more from how they do business, it’s clear that journalists can learn a few things from bloggers as well.

I’m sure my journalism professors would agree.

Note: The AP did post a correction (reg required) on its previous stories on the issue.

[tags]Plagiarism, Sharrod Brown, Mike DeWine, Content Theft, Copyright, Copyright Infringement, Cleveland, Alito[/tags]

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