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But That Would Be Wrong

The thankless job of pointing out the New York Times’ ethical lapses and its frequent failure to enforce its own self-proclaimed journalistic standards falls to Public Editor Clark Hoyt. On the subject of Maureen Dowd’s lifting a paragraph from Josh Marshall, Hoyt writes:

Dowd said she had not read Marshall’s Web post, but was talking with a friend who suggested the wording without telling her where it came from. An attribution was added to the column online, and The Times ran a correction the next day.

Her explanation was unconvincing to some. How could a friend — whom Dowd has not identified — repeat verbatim a 42-word paragraph? I heard from readers demanding that Dowd be fired.

Dowd told me the passage in question was part of an e-mail conversation with her friend. She noted that she had credited two other bloggers for other information in the column, so there was no reason to intentionally slight Marshall.

[. . .]

I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.

Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, said journalists collaborate and take feeds from each other all the time. That is true with news articles, but readers have a right to expect that even if an opinion columnist like Dowd tosses around ideas with a friend, her column will be her own words. If the words are not hers, she must give credit.

There are a few problems with this. First, even if we are to believe Dowd’s “friend” story we must conclude that she plagiarized the “friend.” It doesn’t matter that the friend was also plagiarizing (if he failed to indicate that the paragraph came from Marshall); if Dowd lifted others’ words verbatim it is plagiarizing, albeit from a less well-known author than Marshall. (Let’s assume the friend wasn’t a famous writer.)

Second, why hasn’t anyone reviewed the “friend” email to determine if Dowd is lying? If the email reads “like Josh said. . .” then we’re back to plagiarizing Marshall. And if the email reads “I always thought. . . ” without a request by Dowd to use the 42 words which followed as her own, then we’re back to plagiarizing the friend. For newspapermen, these people show an appalling lack of curiosity.

And finally, what’s the punishment for doing something that wasn’t “right”? Does the New York Times now have a “one free plagiarism” rule? It seems that if they are ever going to punish less-known writers for their misdeeds it might behoove the Times’ management  to consider whether Dowd should get a pass.

Granted Dowd has been under quite a bit of stress lately — ruminating about the end of her career and watching her beloved president adopt Darth Vader’s national security policies as his own — so maybe there were extenuating circumstances. But now might be a good time to come clean. The stonewall routine isn’t working all that well for Nancy Pelosi’s reputation and I suspect Dowd’s won’t fare any better so long as the email remains hidden from view. Well, unless the email is incriminating — or doesn’t exist at all.


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