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.

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