Sympathy for the plagiarist

Many years ago—it was at least 15; might’ve been more than 20—I called up the cartoonist Peter Mueller to ask about a cartoon of his called “Mental Floss.”

I don’t remember what I needed to know. I might have just liked it and wanted to know where the idea came from. But I remember what he said.

“Oh, it’s not original,” Mueller told me. “I don’t even know who came up with it first.”

P.S. Mueller is still one of the preeminent one-panel cartoonists working today, and you can buy various swag depicting the “Mental Floss” image—and several variations of it, none of those I found by Mueller—from various swag outlets, both ethereal and ephemeral.

All this to say: plagiarism is not always obvious. It’s not always punished, it’s not always recognized, and it’s not always easy to see the line where it begins and more innocent forms of tribute and reuse end.

But the internet and new (and ubiquitous, and free) software has made finding and publicizing purported plagiarism much easier than it was 10 or 20 years ago. And with that ease the bar seems to be moving. Plagiarism today is usually defined as any four word combo-pack—or even any basic idea—that has appeared anywhere before. On the internet. 

Lately the lefty writer Chris Hedges has been called out as a serial plagiarist in the New Republic. His alleged sins are many; the article’s tone suggests a level of personal animosity in the NR author that used to be entertainingly typical in the world of East Coast political writers. But the charge would almost never have been made a generation ago, and some of the examples arguably have not have been called plagiarism until very recently.

Consider these passages that University of Texas classics professor Thomas Palaima set next to each other for the New Republic. The first is from Hedges’ book, War is a Force That Gives us Meaning.

"In combat the abstract words glory, honor, courage often become obscene and empty. They are replaced by the tangible images of war, the names of villages, mountains, roads, dates, and battalions." 

The rhythm of the language, the ideas, and the sentiment, Palaima concluded, were from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The passage in A Farewell to Arms reads: 

"Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates."

Paliama complained to the publisher, and subsequent editions of Hedges book made the passage:

The lofty words that inspire people to war—duty, honor, glory—swiftly become repugnant and hollow. They are replaced by the hard, specific images of war, by the prosaic names of villages and roads. 

Consider these passages the New Republic writer, Christopher Ketcham, posits as plagiaristic. The first is from Naomi Klein, published in The Nation magazine. The second is Hedges four days hence. Says Ketcham: "The lifting here is subtler than in other examples, but the ideas in each sentence are similar and the words in several cases exactly the same:" 


So while the United States increased its carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels, the European Union countries reduced theirs by 2 percent. … Flash forward to the high-stakes climate negotiations that just wrapped up in Bangkok. The talks were supposed to lead to a deal in Copenhagen this December that significantly strengthens the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, the United States, the EU and the rest of the developed countries formed a unified bloc calling for Kyoto to be scrapped and replaced. Where Kyoto set clear and binding targets for emission reductions, the US plan would have each country decide how much to cut, then submit its plans to international monitoring (with nothing but wishful thinking to ensure that this all keeps the planet’s temperature below catastrophic levels). And where Kyoto put the burden of responsibility squarely on the rich countries that created the climate crisis, the new plan treats all countries the same.


The United States, after rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, went on to increase its carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels. The European Union countries during the same period reduced their emissions by 2 percent. But the recent climate negotiations in Bangkok, designed to lead to a deal in Copenhagen in December, have scuttled even the tepid response of Kyoto. Kyoto is dead. The EU, like the United States, will no longer abide by binding targets for emission reductions. Countries will unilaterally decide how much to cut. They will submit their plans to international monitoring. And while Kyoto put the burden of responsibility on the industrialized nations that created the climate crisis, the new plan treats all countries the same.

What we see here is two like-thinking people, writing for like-thinking outlets, expressing the same ideas. What we see in the Hemmingway bit above it is something not so different. And in both instances we see something that was routine until very recently at least—and may be exposed as such still, if enough critics decide they need to go after enough writers of magazine articles and books.

Consider what Gay Talese says about his seminal magazine profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and another piece he did on Joe DiMaggio in this recent interview/annotation published by the Nieman Lab.

I have attributed stuff, but there’s times you don’t want to attribute./gt <The times have changed./eg <It could be that I’m open for criticism. Just to go back to the DiMaggio piece — if I had said, “‘Oh, Joe, you never heard such cheering,’ Marilyn said, according to Maurice Zolotow in Glamour magazine,” it would kill it. So you take what is a part of the public record; that quote was probably published two or three years before. Now, if I had had an appendix, I’d have cited it. But it didn’t seem like I could put it in without messing up the whole atmosphere. You couldn’t do that. If you did it, you’d blow it. The quote wouldn’t resonate the way it did./gt <Right./eg <We’re not talking about daily journalism, remember. This is part of the New Journalism. It takes certain liberties, if you will, from formal journalism — formulaic journalism. What you’re talking about is formulaic journalism. I am insistent on acknowledging sources. This piece I’m doing now, I’ve been waiting 30 years because I wouldn’t let the guy go off the record./gt <If you’re writing a piece today, and you do something like this, do you cite that quote?/eg <If I was doing a piece for, say, the New York Times or the New York Observer, I would probably approach it very differently. With the DiMaggio piece, I never spoke to Marilyn Monroe. I read about her from other writers. This quote had been in my files and when I got to writing about DiMaggio I thought of it. I picked it up and put it in there. I never thought it was going to have the reaction it did. I just thought it belonged there./gt <It’s a great quote./eg <It didn’t seem like a great quote at the time. How many people had read that and didn’t call it a great quote? I mean, how come if it’s a great quote for me, why wasn’t it a great quote first? I mean, it was either in the Saturday Evening Post or some big magazine. It wasn’t in the New York Review of Books, I’ll tell you that. So why wasn’t it great for him? Maybe he got it from somebody else. How do I know where it came from?/gt <Maybe the piece didn’t get traction./eg <Well, how come?/gt <Who knows?/eg <”Who knows?” That’s not enough. It’s a great quote. And it was already out there in a big way in some magazine./gt <If you’re a great player and you’re playing on the Houston Astros, are you going to get as much attention if you’re a great player and you’re playing for the Yankees?/eg <But if you’re in a national audience, which Zolotow was…/gt <But was his story as good as your story?/eg <I don’t know./gt

The “New Journalism” is now 50 years old. The new “new journalism”—an amalgam of lists, galleries, “data” and outrage—feeds a call-out culture that targets writers of fame or stature while ignoring the daily sins of the legions of bloggers endlessly gunning for the remaining professionals working in journalism for actual pay.

When my colleage Gadi Dechter (following the post of an ax-grinding blogger) took down long time Sun columnist Michael Olesker, the original sin (there were many alleged sins, alas) was Olesker’s lifting of another columnist’s sympathetic description of a politician wallowing in the gutter.

It cost Olesker his job, no argument was brooked. 

And it’s a bad habit to rip someone else’s anecdote. But the even bigger sin these days is something so outrageous that, before the internet came along, no one even noticed it: so-called “self-plagiarizing.”

Jonah Lehrer was pilloried for this in 2012, later losing his cush gig at The New Yorker before righting himself with yet more cush speaking gigs and a new book deal.

I think the young man has badly overreached in many ways. But on the subject of recycling one’s own work—“self-plagiarizing,” as some call it—the journalism profession and its critics have gone off the rhetorical and logical cliff.

Indeed, if one can “steal” one’s own work now, what does the word "plagiarist" even mean?

The Lehrer case illustrates the problem at the center of all this. In years past, a writer would be an idiot if he did not try to resell his work as many times and to as many outlets as possible. That, indeed, is how writers—freelancers especially—make their living.

And it is the contract. In most cases a freelancer sells only “First North American rights” or some other narrowly-defined use of his or her work. The whole idea was to preserve the writer’s ability to resell or reuse it elsewhere, later, if he could get someone else to pay.

More fundamentally, any writer or thinker worthy of the term reuses and repeats similar ideas as she develops them. Plato did this in his dialogues. Rene Descartes did something similar. To rip him off blatantly, it’s not too far a stretch to say “I think, therefore I copy, therefore I rework, therefore I think better.” 

But, ah! The internet means never having to say it’s out of print. The very same mechanism that makes it easy to see if any sentence in the work before you has appeared elsewhere also makes it harder and harder for the writer to resell it.

It makes it harder for a writer to fully develop an idea.

In the tech world, the whole game is to make a piece of software and then distribute it everywhere—hopefully to paying customers but just as well to legions of free users who’ll create a lucrative advertising and data-mining platform of it by blogging up a whole bunch of recycled outrage. Repeating oneself—in full, without variation, for full pay each time—is the whole point of writing computer code and the holy grail of every Silicon Valley startup. And much of what’s passed off as new code is cribbed from modules previously written—and tested and found effective—by others. 

Yet, in the writer’s world, repetition, re-use and appropriation of any kind is now met with gales of opprobrium. And this is, in large part, because of the innovations of the code-writers.

I would use the word irony here but I’m pretty sure I’ve used it elsewhere before, so I leave it to more creative people to carry this thought forward, if that is still possible.

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