The Washington Post’s review last week of Jill Abramson’s book Merchants of Truth declared that the former New York Times executive editor “owes two debts” to author David Halberstam. Two other reporters stepped forward yesterday to claim that Abramson owes a lot more to more writers. Michael Moynihan of Vice News and Ian Frisch of the defunct magazine Relapse claim that Abramson lifted entire passages from their work and the work of others — for a book in which Abramson demands better ethical behavior in journalism. Both took to Twitter to make their cases:
— Michael C Moynihan (@mcmoynihan) February 6, 2019
— Ian Frisch (@IanFrisch) February 7, 2019
Follow their entire tweet threads to get the full gist of the allegations. The Washington Post covered the controversy this morning, leading with Abramson’s denials last night in an interview with Fox’s Martha MacCallum. “All I can tell you,” Abramson told McCallum when challenged, “is I certainly didn’t plagiarize my book, and there’s 70 pages of footnotes showing where I got the information”:
Not so fast, the Post reports. The footnotes are there, but the main text of the book doesn’t show specific attribution. And this doesn’t quite cover the allegations made by Moynihan and Frisch anyway:
The Washington Post reviewed end notes in the back of Abramson’s book, which refer to pages where she used material that was not her own. There is no indication in the main text of the book showing which passages require attribution.
The Post could not review all of the citations, but found some citations that appear to refer to Frisch’s work as well as examples pointed out by Moynihan. The citations are not referenced in the passages where the sourced material was used, and instead are listed with page numbers and organized by chapter. They key to specific quotes or terms in the passages and refer to articles, websites and books.
That’s not a sufficient answer, as anyone who went through a freshman composition class in college would know. Writers can’t just lift entire passages from another source without quotes and without instant attribution. Attributing previously published material while using it at the same time isn’t terribly difficult, either. In the instances above, Abramson could have written, “As Jake Malooley observed in Time Out, ‘When he lived in Chicago, Jason Mojica sang in punk bands …’“
Footnotes are for citing the source of a piece of information so people can reference it later, not a license to lift paragraphs from someone else’s work without quotes and specific attributions. Dropping a few words from someone else’s work, as appears to have been done in the highlighted excerpts from Merchants of Truth, does not launder them into original prose either. It actually makes matters worse. A lifted paragraph might be chalked up as an overlooked need to attribute, but the stealth edits of the lifted passages shows a clear intent to deceive.
Frisch rejected Abramson’s “70 pages of footnotes” defense at the end of his tweetstorm, the Post notes:
“I’ve been shown that small snippets of my story have been credited in the endnotes, but the endnotes do not go into the depth of how much this section about Thomas relied on my article,” Frisch later wrote on Twitter. “She quotes Thomas as if he’s speaking to her directly. This would not fly for a mag article.”
Speaking with The Post, he added, “I worked so hard to stick to the foundation of journalism, which is truth and accuracy, and it’s difficult for me to see such brazen similarities in Jill’s work and my own.”
Even Abramson finally realized that the footnotes page defense wasn’t going to hold up. She went from “I don’t think this is an issue at all” to You bet I take these issues seriously in a hurry:
I take seriously the issues raised and will review the passages in question
— Jill Abramson (@JillAbramson) February 7, 2019
Perhaps her editor and publisher should get ahead of the curve and start looking at the rest of Abramson’s book. After all, the book proclaims itself to address “the fight for facts” in its subtitle and a “revolution in … standards,” as its promotional material states. They can start by defining the standards used in Abramson’s reporting and the facts of where the text originated.