Is there a three-step, Kubler-Ross-ish progression for accusations of plagiarism? If so, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has managed to step through them with alacrity for her new book, ironically titled Merchants of Truth. Step one — denial:
Step two — grudging acknowledgment:
I take seriously the issues raised and will review the passages in question
— Jill Abramson (@JillAbramson) February 7, 2019
Step three — the non-admission admission, with a dollop of self-pity:
Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, facing allegations of plagiarism, conceded on Thursday that some of the passages in her new book “Merchants of Truth” too closely mirrored work that first appeared in other publications.
“The language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text,” Abramson said in a statement provided to CNN Business.
The veteran journalist added that the language in question would be “fixed,” saying that while writing her book she “tried above all to accurately and properly give attribution to the many hundreds of sources that were part of my research.” …
Abramson said in her statement Thursday that she was “up all night” going through her book because she takes “claims of plagiarism so seriously.”
Abramson certainly wasn’t taking it seriously in her interview with Fox’s Martha MacCallum, and she’s still mostly denying it. The citations noted by Vice’s Michael Moynihan and Relapse’s Ian Frisch aren’t cases of language being “too close,” but of clipping out complete paragraphs and passing the language off as Abramson’s own. The tiny changes made in a few instances indicate a clear foreknowledge of the sin being committed and a dishonest attempt to avoid detection.
Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple’s not buying the latest step on Abramson’s progression either:
“The language” is one way to describe the offending material. “The words that I wrote and that bear my byline” is another. …
There are indeed 68.5 pages of sourcing notes in the book, which weighs in at 530-plus pages. Yet as Moynihan himself points out, those sourcing notes don’t support the purloined material — and even if they did, “it’s still plagiarism,” he observes, correctly.
Plagiarism is inexcusable when an overrated wunderkind of hot takes does it. Plagiarism is inexcusable when a young expert in viral storytelling does it. Plagiarism is inexcusable when a fledgling columnist does it.
But what is plagiarism when one of the country’s pillars of journalistic rectitude does it? Utterly inexcusable and big news, that’s what.
Wemple correctly notes that there seems to be a reluctance to apply a common standard to Abramson because of her status in the industry. That should call for higher standards, and yet most of the media appears anxious to lower the bar and assume her best intentions. Tom Scocca, editor of Hmm Daily, called out the news media for its hypocrisy while dealing with one of the cardinal sins of the industry:
Like most plagiarists, she’s also arrogant and dishonest about it. “I don’t think it’s an issue at all,” she told a Fox News host last night, after the host had offered her the lifeline of calling it a “footnote issue.” On Twitter, she tried to be more cautious, writing “I take seriously the issues raised and will review the passages in question”—but only after she’d lashed out, Trump-wise, at the motives of the people who’d caught her doing wrong…
Abramson was correct that people at Vice had been angry about what she considered a balanced portrayal—partly because they considered her self-assessment of that portrayal to be wrong, and they read her attitude toward them as offensive. But it was also partly because she got significant facts wrong, in the galley version of her book, in ways that they felt reflected her disrespect toward them. That was why Moynihan wrote that he’d tried checking the final version for accuracy, only to find the plagiarism.
That motivation doesn’t change the fact that Moynihan did, in fact, find plagiarism. It does, however, shape the reaction to the plagiarism. Bill Keller, who preceded Abramson as executive editor of the Times, defended her on Twitter:
Jill Abramson is a journalist of courage and integrity. She has written a great book on the profound transformation of the news business, richly documented and full of insight. It's distressing that some apparent carelessness in attribution might overshadow her achievement.
— Bill Keller (@billkeller2014) February 7, 2019
“Carelessness in attribution” is what happens when you fail to properly format a blockquote. Pasting other people’s text into your own is plagiarism. Journalists of integrity don’t commit plagiarism, and they don’t defend plagiarism just because they consider the plagiarist a peer.
That’s about as far as fair use will allow for excerpting here, but be sure to read the rest of Scocca’s indictment of the media response to Abramson’s plagiarism. They’re treating her as the victim, and casting Moynihan and Frisch as the villains. The message: Jill Abramson matters more than people who write their own work. After all, who else will write books defending establishment media outlets against its upstart online competitors?
Abramson needs to add a step or two to the plagiarism progression. The media industry needs to take a few more steps, too — especially if they insist on posing as “merchants of truth.”