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?