"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.
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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.)