Sunday, May 17, 2009

What We've Learned: Maureen Dowd Passes Off Her Friends' Words As Her Own. It's Not Plagiarism, But It's Not Right.

"The suggestion that the issue is who uncovered the plagiarism is a red herring," said one such staff member. ''The core of Joe Biden's credibility is that he is a self-proclaimed and unique visionary orator. It's like finding out General Haig never served in the Army."

That quote appeared in a Maureen Dowd story published on September 16, 1987, a followup to her scoop that then-Sen. Joe Biden had lifted elements of a speech from a British politician. And so will others now write about Dowd -- legitimately -- as we wonder how such a unique, talented and visionary writer could so easily, and inadvertently, have taken an entire paragraph from a blogger and represented it as her own.

We do believe it was inadvertent. In fact, we want to say this definitively and without hesitation: we don't believe Maureen Dowd intentionally plagiarized the work of Joshua Micah Marshall, and we do believe her when she says that she would have credited him had she known they were his words. She's not a plagiarist, and that word doesn't have any further place in the discussion of this episode.

But Dowd's explanation, over the course of four emails with The NYTPicker late this afternoon and evening, still just doesn't make sense -- and it won't sit well with readers who, like us, read Dowd for the originality of her vision.

First, she claimed that she "was talking to a friend" on Friday "who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent -- and I assumed spontaneous -- way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column."

In a followup email, Dowd said that "we were going back and forth discussing the topic of the column and he made this point and i thought it was a good one and wanted to weave it in."

It's one thing for Dowd to take the essence of a friend's idea and weave it into her commentary. It's another to take the expression of a friend's idea -- the words themselves -- and place it into a piece of writing that appears under her byline, as though it were not only her idea, but also her singular expression of that idea.

Shouldn't Dowd be expected -- as a highly-paid and highly-valued member of the NYT staff -- to put ideas, even if they originate from friends, into her own words?

It still seems likely (until Dowd tells us specifically otherwise) that the columnist took this idea from her friend verbatim, either through dictation or via cut-and-paste. Either way, it's depressing to contemplate.

If the conversation between Dowd and her friend took place on the phone, it simply isn't believable that Dowd could possibly have gotten a virtual word-for-word, comma-for-comma quote unless her friend had dictated the paragraph to her. The odds that a "back-and-forth"phone conversation on the topic could have resulted in this near-verbatim lift seem extraordinarily remote.

But when we asked Dowd specifically whether the idea had been dictated to her by her friend, she replied, "No." And in a later email, she told us that she talks to this particular friend "via phone and email."

This leaves open only one real possibility: that Dowd's friend emailed her Marshall's point, and that Dowd cut-and-pasted it from the email and into her column.

Absent any further details from Dowd -- we've written her yet again for a more detailed explanation of what happened -- we're left only with one explanation for her silence. Dowd doesn't want her audience -- millions of readers who respect and admire the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist -- to think that she doesn't even bother to edit the thoughts of her friends before dropping them into her column.

But today's revelation will make readers wonder, from now on, whether the brilliant ideas, phrases and theses that make Dowd's column so memorable -- and so influential -- belong to her, or to her vast network of friends.

It makes perfect sense for a writer -- especially a columnist -- to seek the counsel of friends in forming an opinion. Dowd did nothing wrong in discussing her column with a friend, or even with liking a friend's idea enough to incorporate it into her column. But don't we have the right to expect that the language of a Dowd column belongs to its author, and not to her friends? That's why the notion of a cut-and-paste or dictation matters so much to us. It may not be immoral to borrow the words of a friend and represent them as your own, but it's not exactly a mark of journalistic distinction.

And we're pretty sure that the Maureen Dowd who exposed the 1987 Biden transgression would agree with us.

* * *

Previous Maureen Dowd coverage on The NYTPicker:

BREAKING: Did Maureen Dowd Plagiarize Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall? Sure Looks That Way. (Sunday, May 17, 5:45 p.m.)

BREAKING: Dowd Admits Plagiarism To NYTPicker: "Josh Is Right," Dowd Says. Plus She Blames It On "A Friend." (Sunday, May 17, 6:38 p.m.)

EXCLUSIVE: Dowd Denies Friend Dictated Paragraph; "We Were Going Back And Forth," Dowd Says (Sunday, May 17, 6:58 p.m.

EXCLUSIVE: Maureen Dowd Denies To NYTPicker That "Friend" Was New Republic's Leon Wieseltier: "I Have A Lot Of Friends." (Sunday, May 17, 7:09 p.m.)

EXCLUSIVE: Dowd Tells NYTPicker She Talks To Her Friend "By Phone And Email." Did Dowd Cut and Paste? (Sunday, May 17, 9:51 p.m.)

14 comments:

brad said...

So let's see the text of Dowd's emails to you. I am curious about this friend with an eidetic memory...

Anonymous said...

Word-for-freaking-word plagiarism is explained away as "I was talking to a friend." Only at the NYT...A friend who either wrote your bloody column for you or dictated it to you. Either way, NFG

Anonymous said...

I enjoy this blog's thoughtful analysis of the Times. Good coverage of this incident. We need more blogs like this covering different papers, especially the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

Anonymous said...

thoughts on what clark hoyt will write next sunday?

Kenneth E. Tucker said...

"She's not a plagiarist, and that word doesn't have any further place in the discussion of this episode."

In the words of 'momma'; 'Stupid is as stupid does."

Your saying it isn't plagiarism doesn't make it so.

It's obvious, it's a straight 'lift', from the much derided blogger folk (ie not serious journalists) so... what's that make Dowd? Besides a lazy thief, that is.

One more 'note', re: the anonymous 'friend' attribution, over and over and over. It 'smells' to me like a non-existent 'friend' developed to give her some wiggle room. Or, just produced the 'friend' MD, and let him/her straighten it all out/fall on their sword.

Anonymous said...

is this the same "friend" that helped Judy Miller with her stories?

Anonymous said...

1. "Plagiarism...is the "use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work." (Wikipedia).
2. Dowd published the thoughts and language of someone else as if they were her original work in the nation's premier newspaper.
3. Ergo, Dowd is a plagiarist.
4. Her intention has nothing to do with it.

Thomas

Sam said...

Kenneth and Thomas are right--Dowd is clearly a plagiarist, and seemingly a dishonest one too. Your affinity for Dowd doesn't change the pretty clear-cut definition of plagiarism.

I really appreciate your reporting, but just because Dowd responds to your emails doesn't mean you need to so blatantly suck up to her in a way that ruins your coverage ie "a unique, talented and visionary writer", calling this situation "depressing", and, worst, "that word doesn't have any further place in the discussion of this episode," as if the subject of whether this is plagiarism or not is closed for discussion and anyone who questions this is committing a wrong. For a post which goes on for some time on journalistic ethics and distinction, it could certainly benefit from a little objectivity.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but I don't know if the word "plagiarism" is really the best word to describe what happened. Sure, there's an embarrassing sentence or two that are direct copies, but I usually associate the word "plagiarism" with kids who copy 70-80% of a paper because they're too lazy to do the work. As with some of the others like DK Goodwin and S. Ambrose, I think the most likely explanation is that some text got misprocessed by the word processor. I don't think Maureen Dowd said to herself, "OMG. My deadline is like in almost 5 minutes. My copy editor is going to like really kill me if this isn't the full 650 words. They told me they can't grab a big fat pull quote like they did last time. Where am I going to get some words? OMG. I've got like the worst writer's block evah. OMG. Where am I going to get some of those word thingees. Oh, I got it. Let me just grab a sentence from another widely-read blogger because he's like so smart and NO ONE will EVAR notice. Whew. Now I can go out to the bar and get a drink. Problem solved."

Nope. That's not what happened and there's too much schadenfreude in all of the accusations here.

Sheesh. Using the word "plagiarism" to describe what happened here is like using the word "genocide" to describe an average murder-suicide of a family.

Plagiarism is a real problem that appears when reporters (and students) don't do their job. I don't even think it's the best word for what was so disconcerting about Biden's missteps. That was especially embarrassing because he was making claims that were just not true. The real issue was that he couldn't keep the details straight.

So I think everyone should lighten up.

Anonymous said...

Sam , never got ripped off, perhaps he never wrote anything worthing lifting

Anonymous said...

@Sam, sorry did not mean you,
i meant the other anonymous above me:)

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

Explain to me how using anyone else's words without attribution could be anything but plagiarism.

Either Dowd plagiarized her friend or she plagiarized Josh Marshall.

The only possible defense against the charge of plagiarism is if the "friend" is really her assistant/ghostwriter. It's easy to imagine how Dowd might work in a sentence thinking it was the ghostwriter's work when it was actually Marshall's. That might have been plagiarism on the ghostwriter's part, or it might have just been sloppy annotation.

However, this scenario would only be an excuse if the NYT code of ethics allows columnists to use the words of ghost writers without attribution.

But if the "friend" was really an assistant, Dowd's explanation for the mixup is is at best a half-truth.

If it was just an innocent mixup, Dowd and her "friend" should have no problem coming forward clearing up the confusion.

Anonymous said...

It's not plagiarism to use the suggestions of a friend if the friend consents. I do it all the time with people. Sometimes they take my suggestions verbatim. Sometimes they find yet another sentence. Great writing takes that amount of work.

It takes a village to raise a column....

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

(Apologies if this is a double post.)

Plagiarism means passing someone else's words off as your own. It doesn't matter whether those words have been previously published.

Getting input is great. Word-for-word copying is plagiarism.

How is it less serious if Dowd deliberately cribbed from her friend's email vs. off of Josh Marshall's blog?

If Dowd copped to a copy & paste error, whether from her friend or Josh Marshall's blog, I'd forgive her. It's embarrassing and sloppy, but accidents happen.

Instead, she admitted that she borrowed someone's words on purpose. Apparently, it was just her bad luck that she unwittingly plagiarized a plagiarist