The Palin Plagiarism Scandal


Here we go again. Another political figure, this time Sarah Palin, has been accused of plagiarism by political opponents, this time The Huffington Post. As with the Obama, Biden, McCain and, more recently, the Maureen Dowd plagiarism scandal, the affair has already become an uncomfortable blending of plagiarism and politics.

Still, whenever a political figure is accused of plagiarism in such a significant way, it is worth taking the time to analyze the accusations and determine how valid they are.

However, it doesn’t take a very detailed analysis of these accusations to find flaws with them. Perhaps even more than the other accusations I’ve dealt with, these particular claims of plagiarism are befuddling and seem to be blown out of proportion.

What Happened

Last week, author Geoffrey Dunn published an article on the Huffington Post accusing Palin of “lifting” several passages from her recent speech from an article written four years ago by Newt Gingrich and Craig Shirley. The speech, which was given at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts was to introduce Michael Reagan and lasted, all totalled, about 17 minutes.

Dunn, in his article, listed several examples of Palin closely paraphrasing including this example:

Palin: First, I think what we’re going to learn tonight via Michael is that Ronald Reagan’s ideas were the right ideas and all we have to do is look back at his record, his economic record and his national security record to know that his ideas were right.

Gingrich/Shirley: What should Americans learn from this remarkable man and his remarkable Presidency?…The “right” ideas really matter (the left was wrong and Reagan was right about virtually every major public policy issue and the historic record is clear for those willing to look at it).

In all, Dunn listed ten examples of close paraphrasing between the speech and the original article.

Palin, for her part, did mention the article and Gingrich twice, once in the beginning saying, “Recently, Newt Gingrich, he had written a good article about Reagan,” in the opening and saying, “What Newt had written in this article, he wrote, ‘Remember how refreshing it was with his outrageous directness that Americans loved, and praised and deserved’ that Reagan dealt with, with then the troublesome Soviet Union, remember this? His vision for the Cold War? We win, they lose,” toward the end.

Palin, through her attorney, has strongly denied these allegations and has said that, “It is abundantly clear in context, and even in subcontext, that the overview of President Reagan’s legacy was attributed to Newt Gingrich.”

Gingrich himself has also weighed in, saying that he has no issue with Palin’s use of his material.

Still, this hasn’t stopped the story from becoming a media blizzard one that doesn’t seem to be dying down, even now.

My Thoughts

Looking at the evidence in this case, I have to largely agree with Palin’s attorney on this one.

Though it is clear that Palin did paraphrase from the article there is also little doubt that she did at least attempt to attribute her use of it. Her attribution may have been lacking in some ways, but it clear that she acknowledged the article twice. If she hadn’t acknowledged the article, it would be a pretty clear cut case, the amount of content reused and the similarities are too much to ignore. But, that is simply not the case here.

I would have encouraged Palin to make her attribution more clear, perhaps saying that she’ll be paraphrasing the article some, and also to acknowledge the second author of the article. But the failure to do those things does not make her a plagiarist.

Issues like this one are always difficult as determining the amount and form of attribution needed in a particular situation is tricky. However, political speeches typically have very loose attribution requirements, especially when compared to academic works, and it seems Palin was at least making a good faith effort to follow those rules.

To make matters even more complicated, even if one does determine Palin did plagiarize in the speech, there is no guarantee that she wrote it. Speechwriters are common in political speeches and it is very possible she had only a limited hand in writing the actual speech.

In short, of all of the political plagiarism scandals I’ve talked about, this one is either the least concerning or close to it. The Dowd plagiarism, scandal was far worse, though even it didn’t prove plagiarism (though it did prove very sloppy journalism and poor excuse-making). Of the now-five cases I’ve covered only one, the Biden scandal (as it pertains to his college plagiarism) has held proved to have significant merit.

Bottom Line

I say it every time one of these scandals arises: Plagiarism scandals in politics are usually more about the politics behind the situation than the actual accusation. As such, how one views the scandal is almost always determined more by their political viewpoints than the facts of the case.

Because of this, I despise covering plagiarism scandals but feel remiss when I don’t mention them. If you read the comments on the previous articles, especially the Dowd one, you’ll find plenty of hostile comments. In that case, several felt I was “whitewashing” the incident, even though I was clear in saying I believe it was very poor form and poor work, even if it does not prove malicious plagiarism.

I make it a rule to grind no political axes on this site but this case definitely seems to be unusual in that it is a plagiarism accusation where the accused actually cited the source, as best as was possible in this setting, twice.

If this were an academic paper, it would be a very serious plagiarism. But one always has to remember the environment the work is written for and the requirements for attribution in that setting. An academic paper is different from a news article, which is different from a political speech.

If Palin’s attribution is lacking, it isn’t because she maliciously wanted to take Gingrich’s words as her own, but due more to poor speechwriting. It’s very hard to call someone a plagiarist for a mistake, especially when, in this case, they made effort to attribute correctly.

Image on front page is by Flickr User Mattbuck and is licensed under a CC-BY license. Found via Wikipedia.

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