Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Did The NYT Give Maureen Dowd A Free Pass On A Plagiarism Charge? Looks That Way.

The story's over, folks. Maureen Dowd is back imagining childish chitchat between Cheney and Rumsfeld over a bottle of Brunello. Josh Marshall, the blogger whose words she "accidentally" appropriated for her Sunday column, has declared the NYT's one-sentence correction "the end of it." Press critics -- those that bothered to write about the accusations against Dowd that surfaced late Sunday afternoon -- generally see the incident as small potatoes in the grand scheme of journalistic transgressions.

But we don't think the story's over, or ought to be. We believe the NYT has given its star columnst a free pass on an incident that would have potentially cost another reporter their job -- the act, intentional or not, of allowing another writer's words to appear in print under your byline. Not to get all legal or anything, but this is important: plagiarism is not an act that requires intent. Otherwise we'd be willing -- and expected -- to forgive all manner of idiots, and their varied excuses for copying other writers' words.

The other night, we wrote a that the word "plagiarism" has no place in the discussion of this incident. We've revised our thinking on that point. If Dowd's account of what happened is true -- and we have no reason to consider her a liar -- then it was inadvertent plagiarism. But it's still plagiarism; Josh Marshall's words appeared in the NYT under Mauren Dowd's byline. There's no other word to describe it.

NYT's own stated policy on plagiarism draws no distinctions about intent, and offers no forgiveness for inadvertent plagiarism. It's emphatic and definitive:

Staff members who plagiarize...betray our fundamental pact with our readers. We will not tolerate such behavior.

But nothing's going to happen to Dowd, and here's why. At a time of declining revenues and a shaky business model, Dowd ranks among the NYT's most stable and valuable editorial assets. The NYT can simply not afford to put Dowd under the glare of investigation, and risk alienating -- let alone losing -- one of its most celebrated stars.


What are the charges against Dowd, anyway? Let's review them, because they're largely unresolved -- and they're more serious than you would think from reading most media critics, who see this episode as a minor misdemeanor, or even worse, not worth writing about at all.

1. Dowd published a column in the NYT with a paragraph lifted directly -- and virtually verbatim -- from a prominent blog.

2. When exposed, Dowd explained that:

-- "a friend suggested" that Dowd make that point in her piece, without telling her it came from the blog.

-- the "friend" consented to have the idea included in Dowd's column without credit.

-- the "friend" and Dowd communicate frequently via email and phone.

-- Dowd would have attributed the paragraph if she had known its source, but her "friend" failed to tell her that it came from Marshall's blog.

To her critics, that explanation suffices. It shows that Dowd didn't intend to plagiarize -- that her friend misled her into thinking she was quoting the friend, and not Marshall.

Dowd, along with the NYT spokeswoman who has supported Dowd's version of events, has also asked us to give her credit for her stellar record of attribution as a journalist and columnist. What's the relevance of that? Plagiarists don't -- and shouldn't -- get to cite their previous original work as a defense.

As journalists we are responsible for our actions every single day, and mistakes matter, even first ones if they're serious enough. It's appropriate to take Dowd's stellar record for attribution into account when deciding whether to punish her for the transgression, but it doesn't make her innocent, or give her permanent immunity from doubt. And it shouldn't lessen the NYT's commitment to set things right in this instance.


There's a lot yet to set right in this episode, and the NYT owes it to its readers to come clean. So does Dowd. There remain several questions Dowd has still not answered publicly or adequately -- questions the NYT has seemingly not forced her to address, nor deemed necessary to answer for its readers.

Here's a list:

-- Dowd won't say how the friend transmitted the "idea" -- which was, most seem to agree, almost impossible to pass on except by dictation or email. Dowd denies that the Marshall paragraph was dictated to her, but won't otherwise disclose any details of how a 45-word sentence from a blog, including commas, got transmitted to her.

If the paragraph was emailed, did her "friend" cut and paste Marshall's words into an email? Or was the paragraph part of a larger email with multiple ideas, in which the friend inserted the Marshall quote? Specific answers to these questions would help her editors -- and readers, if the NYT chose to be transparent about this -- understand that the mistake was, indeed, inadvertent.

If it was said aloud, how could Dowd have so accurately transcribed the words? This scenario poses more problems for Dowd. If her "friend" told her the idea over the phone, it's implausible to imagine Dowd getting the Marshall sentence so accurately unless it was dictated. Dowd specifically said "no" when asked by the NYTPicker on Sunday night if it had been dictated to her.

"We were going back and forth discussing the topic of the column," Dowd told the NYTPicker via email, "and he made this point and I thought it was a good one and wanted to weave it in."

Again, not to get all lawyery, but it's worth noting the care with which Dowd has chosen her words. "Going back and forth" still doesn't tell us how the paragraph went from her friend's mind into Dowd's column. "He made this point" also doesn't specify how that was done.


On Sunday night, we pressed Dowd twice on the question of how the point got transmitted, in followup emails. Our first follow up email posed a direct question as to whether this was communicated via phone or email.

We asked Dowd:

forgive me if we're being thick...but how could it have ended up word for word the same as marshall, if it wasn't dictated in some way?

also, would it be incorrect to suggest that the friend might be leon wieseltier? he has often been cited as a friend/adviser of yours on columns.

Dowd ignored the first question entirely, and replied only:

no, it wasn't leon; i have a lot of friends

In other words, still no answer.

At this point we wrote to Dowd one more time. This exchange hasn't been published before, by the way -- frankly, we didn't know what to make of her unwillingness to answer our direct question for the third time, so we let it go. But it's relevant to this discussion so we're including it now.

At 9:49 p.m. on Sunday night, we wrote this email to Dowd:

Thank you very much for replying. We really appreciate your willingness to answer our questions.

Please forgive us for pressing this point, but your email doesn't quite clarify the issue, and it's one that's being raised across the web tonight. How, exactly, did the entire paragraph end up nearly verbatim in your column? It stretches credibility to suggest that the came fully-formed in Josh's words via a phone conversation, unless it was dictated, which you said it wasn't. if you can categorically say that this paragraph came to you via email, and without attribution, we think it would go a long way towards allaying readers' concerns over how this happened.

Again, thanks for your prompt and helpful answers to our questions.

At 11:05 p.m. came this curt email reply from Dowd:

I thought I said here it was someone I talk to on both

It's clear that Dowd didn't want to say how the Marshall paragraph got transmitted to her -- she's a brilliant reporter herself, and smart enough to know when she's evading a specific question, three separate times. Which raises a different question: why doesn't she want to say?

As journalists, our antenna go up when we see someone repeatedly evade an answer to a direct question -- it suggests the possibility that something is being hidden. Dowd has had ample opportunity to tell her readers exactly how she got this paragraph, and exactly how it ended up in her Sunday column, but she chooses not to. Absent a true narrative of what happened, we're left to live with our suspicions. Is that how Dowd and the NYT really want it?


Anonymous said...

So the NYT gives its stars free passes? This is news?

That's how we know it's the Times.

Anonymous said...

Whichever way you slice it, it's plagarism. Maybe Dowd's "friend" should get the byline in the future. And frankly, while it probably is natural for columnists to kick around ideas with friends, I find it somewhat disturbing and disigenuous for columnists to sell others ideas as their own.

Amy Alkon said...

Since there's no further clarification by Dowd or the NYT, it seems the truth (perhaps that she has assistants writing her column?) is worse than the obfuscation/apparent lies, or why wouldn't she tell it?

As for the NYT, if you have ethical standards, they're not supposed to turn into lycra when it's in your financial interest.

Finally, the use of lowercase letters for "i" and "josh marshall," etc., by anyone over 12 is disturbing, and bespeaks a certain unattractive laziness when the user is a celebrated middle-aged columnist for the New York Times. This laziness seems in keeping with whatever laziness allowed this line from Josh Micah Marshall to get into her column practically verbatim -- whether it's by somebody else doing the work that's bylined with Dowd's name, or for some other reason she refuses to reveal.

Anonymous said...

Well done. And very fair.

MartiniCocoa said...

Yes she should be suspended for this but that would mean that we actually live in a fair, sensible meritocracy.

I'm not perturbed at all that the NY Times is coddling this careerist hack.

But I do relish the fact that she knows that we all know what she is -- more lucky than bright.

Solitude said...

I see no way in which this incident is not in line with the standards that the NYT has always embraced.

I suppose it seems a bigger deal to Josh Micah Marshall because this time his work is being lifted. But it is not a departure from the NYT standards that have been established and which stretch back at least as Far as Walter Durranty's 1932 work.

If anyone ever thought they were better than this, it is because they turned a blind eye.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I suppose it makes sense to continue hounding her, but I think it's a bit tedious now. Do we really care how the words made it from one place to another? We know it happened and we know that plagiarism isn't the right word to describe what happened.

I'm moving on because this is becoming too picky.

Doug Henwood said...

Oh please. This is so idiotically trivial. The "plagiarized" bit is unremarkable and obvious. Who cares?

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of Dowd's, but I find her explanation acceptable. She had no motive to steal the words of another, and the chance of being caught is 99 percent -- and she would know that. So it was a mistake, and I think we all can be forgiven a few of those.

Anonymous said...

One thing bothers me. I once had a fabricator on staff, and it turns out he very smoothly finessed and deflected every query. Just like Dowd. I hope the Times is at least doing its own investigation. Google is free, after all.

Anonymous said...

It migrated to her column via an email, and she did not know it was lifted from Marshall's blog. She thought it was her friend telling her those words and he gave her permission to quote them in her column, so she did. Without attribution to her friend, as he said he did not want any. Case closed. It was not plagiarism, it was sloppy column writing on deadline. They don't call it a deadline for nothing!

Anonymous said...

@ Doug Henwood: Oh come on, man! The fact that it wasn't an earth-shattering fact that was cribbed or piped from someone else is bullsh*t. An entire paragraph is NOT trivial under ANY circumstances nor in ANY respectable newsroom.

Bragg got canned for less, IMHO. But the company hadn't realized they were only rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic yet...
Are you listening Hoyt? George (Freeman)? Bill?

Suspend her NOW and maintain the last shred of dignity you have.

Judith Miller said...

I tried to make the same point as Amy Alkon's over at the Huffington Post and they refused to post my comments.

I believe that Maureen Dowd has an assistant who writes a first draft of her columns. That's why she's been evasive in her answers. Think about it....Maureen's assistant cranks out a draft of the column, does a cut and paste of Josh Marshall's blog entry and then sends it over to Maureen for her to put her finishing, snarky touches on it. That has worked well in the past but this time there was a screw up.

It's clear that to save face Maureen Dowd would rather blame a nameless "friend" instead of admitting that she doesn't do any of the heavy lifting when it comes to writing the columns that bear her name.


To the above commenter who identifies herself as Judith Miller -- please send some verification of your identity (presumably the Judith Miller who used to work at the NYT) to us at as soon as possible. Otherwise we'll be forced to take your comment down. Thanks.

Unknown said...

this seems like a hang-nail to me - given the going along to get along even though we know it's wrong approach the last eight years and beyond of our emperors - so the question is who's wearing the emperor's new clothes - if so many people believe in something how can it be wrong - as a doc filmmaker i realized a long time ago everybody has a point of view and that the news is really the views - for better or worse what Dowd did was no better or worse then the charade the idiotcracy partnership between big biz as king, gov as queen and media and religion as the mistress - we are in the middle of a systemic meltdown of trust and this issue though about trust (and who knows whose truth is the truth anyway) is a distraction at best - why not put your intelligence and attention to more in-sightful and in-citing things

"Our citizens may be deceived for awhile, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart. 1799

"The press is impotent when it abandons itself to falsehood." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Seymour, 1807.

"It is a happy circumstance in human affairs that evils which are not cured in one way will cure themselves in some other." --Thomas Jefferson to John Sinclair, 1791.

"The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:209, Papers 1:134

food for thought

geo geller

who's wearing emperor's new clothes

Anonymous said...

I'm the person who posted the comment under the Judy Miller moniker and no, I'm not her. So you can take down the comment, if you like, or just change it to "Anonymous", but the point is still the same -- Maureen Dowd is covering for someone or trying to save face and the only thing that explains her evasive behavior is that she has an assistant writing the first drafts of her columns.

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