The Joni Ernst plagiarism scandal that wasn't

It almost becomes painful to write about the political “scandals” which show up in the news at this time of year. An old rule of thumb I’ve tried to follow is that any breaking news which is unbelievably shocking that shows up in the last few weeks of an election is probably unbelievable for a reason. It’s not that serious stories can’t come to light at any time, but if you’re going to strike a low blow, it’s best to do it when your opponent has little or no time to respond. With that in mind, we should take most stories – about candidates from either party – with a grain of salt until confirmation is obtained.

There’s a good dose of that in a story which Buzzfeed broke recently, claiming to have discovered some blatant plagiarism on the part of Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst.

During her time as a member of the Iowa Senate, Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst frequently published reports of the goings-on in the statehouse for her constituents. These updates took the form of articles in her local newspapers, the Red Oak Express and the Opinion-Tribune, and an online newsletter.

Large portions of many of these articles, which were published under her name, appear to have been copied word for word from templates sent as guidelines to Republican members of the Iowa Senate.

Jonathan Bernstein at Bloomberg slams the lid shut on this one pretty quickly.

Yes, that’s right: Ernst (allegedly) cribbed from Republican talking points.

There’s nothing unethical about that. It’s what talking points are for! it. Yes, it was wrong for Joe Biden, in his aborted 1988 presidential run, to copy a speech, which made him describe someone else’s family experience as his own. But to use party-authored boilerplate to praise tax cuts and balanced budgets is utterly reasonable.

Do we really need to start off by saying that plagiarism is bad? In the community of those who cobble together words for a living, it’s among the greatest of the cardinal sins. Those who are caught engaging in it are generally run out of town ahead of a mob with pitchforks and torches, and that’s just their friends who are also writers. Plagiarism is a serious crime because it robs the original author of his or her intellectual property and deceives the audience into believing that the ideas and / or wordsmithing skills on display belong to the thief.

Does any of this apply to Joni Ernst in this scenario? Hardly. These were not policy papers authored by someone else which were then appropriated by Ernst with her name at the bottom. The parties pay people to compile information on virtually every policy point on the spectrum, craft them into easily digestible explanations, and provide them to their candidates and elected officials. The politicos are free to accept or reject the premise of any of these summaries and, if they wish, to use them to make their point while writing or talking. That’s why they’re called talking points.

The entire concept of plagiarism relies on the act of theft from an original author. Using the commissioned work of professionals who are hired to provide such material is not theft. It’s letting people do the job they were hired for.