Sunday, July 09, 2006

Cut-and-paste "plagiarism"

Back in March, at the time of the Domenech debacle, I commented on one of the perils of journalism in the computer age, "cut and paste" plagiarism:

The first big plagiarism scandal at the [Other Paper] I remember was Ruth Shalit, and I suspect that what Domenech did was basically what Shalit did: Accidental "cut and paste" plagiarism, an ever-present hazard of the digital age.
Shalit was very good at using Nexis searches to gather facts for the news-feature profiles she did at the OP. But the problem there is, in the process of assembling a story from Nexis files -- and this is true of just about any computer-assisted writing -- it is possible to forget what is from your sources and what is your own original wording.
I've never had this problem, but that's probably because I'm Old School, having learned the trade as a first-source reporter: There wasn't anybody to plagiarize from, because I was the only journalist covering whatever it was I was covering.
Now it transpires that Ann Coulter is accused of plagiarizing online sources, and I suspect that this happened in the same way, and for the same reason, that it happened to Ruth Shalit: In the process of compiling information from Nexis searches, Coulter simply forgot what was from her sources and what was her original writing.

We know that Coulter makes extensive use of Nexis in her research, because of a quote of hers that we used as the epigraph for Chapter 12 of DONKEY CONS:

"Liberals simply can't grasp the problem Lexis-Nexis poses to
their incessant lying."
According to the Associated Press, Coulter's "plagiarism" consisted of the unattributed use of factual material available in the Nexis database. In some cases, she appears to have reworded the material, in other cases she did not. But it is the failure to attribute the material -- to include a note indicating her source -- that is the key error.

Hurry-up errors?

Coulter states in the acknowledgments of GODLESS that she fell behind deadline on the project. Having recently co-written a book with over 600 endnotes, I know what a hassle it can be to compile notes for such a project. And if you're in a hurry -- if the publisher is demanding that you produce the manuscript on short notice -- this might lead to negligence and sloppiness. Direct quotations appear without quote marks around them, secondhand material appears without proper sourcing.

And what of the plagiarisms alleged in Ann Coulter's columns? Same thing: A busy schedule, pushing too close to a deadline, she fails to reword material gathered from Nexis searches or to properly attribute sources.

Such, I think, is the nature of the problems facing Coulter. I don't think it will really harm her career, however, for three reasons:
  • The evidence suggests negligence rather than malice. It does not appear that she set out purposefully to gain credit for work that was not her own; rather, she got in a hurry and failed to "cross her T's."
  • The alleged plagiarism was not wholesale, but piecemeal. Unlike Ben Domenech who, for instance, appears to have lifted nearly the entire idea for a Britney Spears column from Salon.com, Coulter's overall work is original.
  • Coulter's stock-in-trade is her attitude. She gets paid for taking the news and filtering it through her sarcastic mind. Having been sloppy with her Nexis files does not detract from her "value-added" factor.
I suspect that, in the future, Coulter will be more careful in her research methods, and that her editors will check her copy a bit more closely. No doubt she will resent the accusations of plagiarism, but surely she will see that it was her own hasty mistakes that exposed her to such charges, and will do what is necessary to avoid any future repetition.

I recall years ago reading Al Franken's book "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot." Franken described in that book of how he had gotten himself set up to search the Nexis database. It would be interesting to know if Franken had, however inadvertantly, done the same thing that Coulter is now accused of doing.

Red State has more.

What it's really about

In case anyone is wondering what's going on with all this scrutiny of Coulter, think about Dan Rather and the fake National Guard documents. The Left seems to have become convinced that, because scandals involving MSM journalists have benefitted the conservative cause, the way for the Left to achieve victory is to discredit conservative journalists.

Coulter, however, wasn't using fake documents in an attempt to influence a presidential election. She was not, as CNN did in its "Tailwind" report, making bizarre accusations of human-rights violations against the U.S. military. She did not, as Jayson Blair did, file a West Virginia dateline from an apartment in Brooklyn.

Or consider the Plamegate "scandal": Two journalists faced criminal prosecution for refusing to reveal their sources for a story that discredited left-wing darling Joe Wilson. Normally, the Left staunchly defends any sort of national-security leak in the pursuit of "the public's right to know." But when Matt Cooper and Judith Miller got on the wrong side of the Left, this "right to know" standard went flying out the window.

There was a time, before Rush Limbaugh, before Fox News, when liberalism enjoyed almost a monopoly on the news business. If Walter Cronkite said the U.S. couldn't win in Vietnam, well, "that's the way it was." If the editors of the New York Times decided to publish the "Pentagon Papers," then that decision must be right. But now that other voices have found ways to be heard, challenging the dominant liberal narrative of news, the Left's screaming accusations of bias and malfeasance are almost deafening.

This is an important admission of sorts by the Left. For years, we were told by the grand poobahs of journalism ethics that while, yes, most people in the media were a bit liberal, this had no influence whatsoever on the strictly neutral and objective way in which they reported the news. Yet the poobahs seem not to think the same is true of conservatives; if Fox News is conservative, then their reporting must be biased. In other words, the press poobahs fear that Fox is doing what the liberal media did for years, except with a rightward spin. We should at least be grateful for this tacit admission that the opinions of journalists might sometimes influence how they report the straight news.

I have myself been subjected to the Left's suspicion that my politics affect the way the news is reported by my employer. That these suspicions are founded on a profound misunderstanding of my job -- I have been ludicrously described as a "key editor" -- is tangential to what the Left's snipe-hunt for bias reveals about how the Left uses the news business, and has used it for decades. The Left views journalism as a means of advancing its politics, and this is why they're now examining conservative journalists with such intense scrutiny -- they're afraid that conservatives have decided to play the same game.

-- McCAIN