The Mystery of Plagiarism

Whenever the topic of plagiarism rears its head in the media, I scratch my head. People write because they want to express themselves and gain recognition. Where's the psychic satisfaction in letting the world think someone else's words are yours? The potential for material gain provides little incentive. For intelligent people like writers, there are usually better choices available if their objective is to make money.

To steal language from someone else's movie review squib, as now-disgraced Washington Post blogger Ben Domenech admits to have done, is somewhat like a bank employee getting caught for embezzling pens. What could Domenech have gotten paid by National Review Online for those movie reviews? $200? Why bother? And it's not like the prose he ripped off was all that scintillating.

ben domenech.jpgAre plagiarists just too busy to do their own writing? I suppose that what motivates college term paper plagiarists. Too many classes, too much partying, oh hell I'll just buy a paper on the Internet. And maybe that was Domenech's excuse. He was a young man in a hurry, perhaps, and needed to see his name ubiquitiously in print. But this kid is 24. He barely remembers a time before e-mail. He should know how easy it is to put a complete sentence or paragraph in a search engine and find its match if one exists. He risked, and lost his reputation for nothing, committing a transgression so easily detected.

Domenech's apologists talk about his selflessness for the cause of conservatism. The blog from whence he came, RedState, initially defended him against the left-wingers who discovered his plagiarism, but then had to backtrack:

If you, as many have done, dedicate thousands of man-hours to scrutinizing of (Domenech's) life's work, you'll find two things: First, you'll find several instances of this behavior, some attributable to youth, and some not. Second, you'll find an amazingly talented writer, a man of principle, and an earnest young activist seeking not to advance himself — though advance he did — but the things he believed in.

Certainly it may seem strange today to describe him as a "man of principle." But those who know Ben — and all of us on the RS leadership team do — know that he is passionate in his beliefs. They also know that he is human. It was ignoring this humanity that led to our earlier posts about the situation. It is fitting then, that he chose “Augustine” as his nom de plume here at RedState – for who could serve as a better reminder of the full potential of fallibility and sin – and yet existing within that peril – real hope of forgiveness.

So let me get this straight. Domenech's copycat reviews of mediocre movies served the holy conservative cause because it allowed Domenech to gain greater fame, such that the Washington Post would sponsor his blog, and thereby bring the good word into the temple of the liberal media? Something like that. How oddly expedient, for a movement that regards itself as the house of principle.

(I guess the right-wing blogosphere does not believe the old media is dead or irrelevant. In their heart of hearts, they want to convert the Washington Post, not kill it. Certainly, even before Domenech's perfidy was exposed, there was uproar on the left about his blog, one that clearly exposed the left's primary foible — a titanic level of intolerance for differing viewpoints. Just ask Sen. Joe Lieberman, he of the Americans for Democratic Action liberal rating of between 85-95, what happens when you vary from the orthodoxy.)

A couple of notable historians have been caught for plagiarism, like Doris Kearns Goodwin. According to Atlantic Monthly, she has never appeared on PBS since she admitted lifting phrases from a Kennedy book for her own. Her plagiarism seems more like an accident. Biographers assemble their work over the course of years from thousands of three-by-five cards (or the digital equivalent) with bits and pieces of information on them along with bibliographic information. When writing the book in question, perhaps Goodwin expropriated the prose on the notecard, unaware that it wasn't her notes at all, but direct quotes. I accept her excuse, even if Jim Lehrer doesn't, especially because she now seems sincerely ashamed at the error.

I would feel differently if it turned out Goodwin did it on purpose. But it would also strike me as mysterious. She obviously loves history and the people she writes about. She's already enjoyed a high level of success. Everyone's bank account could be a little bigger, but I doubt the difference between a house in Tahiti and one in New Jersey came down to a copying a few paragraphs from a writer far more obscure than she.

My attitude toward plagiarism comes from my mother. That I'm a writer at all is due to her insistence that I never copy prose from the encyclopedia for my school assignments. I'm sure every other fourth-grader who had to write about salamanders or Gen. Lafayette took sentences straight from the Brittanica, but my mother wouldn't allow it. So I had to rephrase everything, but it had to be just as good as my source. I spent many hours trying to do this, and emerged from the experience as a writer.

Then, of couse, I went into a profession — PR — that not only condones plagiarism, but ofttimes insists on it. Once your client has settled on "key messages," you're supposed to insert them in all the copy that flows from them. In media training, you tell your clients to "bridge" back to those key messages during interviews, e.g. "That's not the real question, Katie. The real question is, how are we going to (insert key message here.)"

The mind-numbing repetition of the same handful of sentences is supposed to help the client's message to "break through." That's one of those PR magic spells I'm beginning to think has worn off. Nobody watches politicians on the news interview shows anymore, according to the ratings. And why? Because all they do is repeat themselves and they don't answer actual questions. Does repeating the same answer over and over again work if no one's listening? When I hear someone talk, I want to be surprised by the originality of their thoughts and the way they express them. A heavily media-trained interview subject is a guaranteed bore. When were you ever persuaded by a bore?

Whether you're a writer or a speaker, plagiarism is malpractice for writers and speakers. That goes equally for self-plagiarism and plagiarizing your own PR people.