Let's try a little (thought) experiment in verbal short-term memory. First, find a friend. Then, find a reasonably complex sentence about 45 words long, expressing a cogent and interesting point about an important issue — say this one from a story in today's New York Times: "But the billions in new proposed American aid, officials acknowledge, could free other money for Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, at a time when Pakistani officials have expressed concern that their nuclear program is facing a budget crunch for the first time, worsened by the global economic downturn."
Now call your friend up on the phone, and have a discussion about the topic of the article. In the course of this conversation, slip in a verbatim performance of the selected sentence. Then ask your friend to write an essay on the topic of the discussion. (OK, this is a thought experiment, right?)
How likely is it that the selected sentence will find its way, word for word, into your friend's essay?
Actually, there's a prior question, which is whether your friend will have stopped the conversation to ask why you're suddenly talking in such a writerly way. Anyhow, keeping all this in mind, read the follow three brief passages. First, one from Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo on 5/14/2009:
More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Now, another from Maureen Dowd's 5/17/2009 NYT column:
More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.
(You'll note that the two sentences are exactly the same, except for the substitution of "the Bush crowd was" for "we were")
I didn't read his blog last week, and didn't have any idea he had made that point until you informed me just now. i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing 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. but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me.
As a college professor, I've heard many excuses for plagiarism over the years, but I don't believe that I've ever heard one quite that lame.
Back in 1987, when Dowd had just been assigned to the NYT's Washington bureau, she made a name for herself by pursuing Joe Biden over his borrowing of rhetorical tropes and short phrases from other politicians. The key story was "Biden's Debate Finale: An Echo From Abroad," 9/12/1987, which pointed out the following connection (quoted from Dowd's story):
(Neil Kinnock) "Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?" Then pointing to his wife in the audience, he continued: "Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?"
(Joe Biden) "I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?" he said. Then, pointing to his wife, he continued: "Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright?"
In a later story ("Biden Is Facing Growing Debate On His Speeches", Dowd cited some additional cases of unoriginality, for example this one:
At the Democratic National Convention in 1976, Mr. Humphrey, then a Senator from Minnesota, declared: "The ultimate moral test of any government is the manner in which it treats three groups of its citizens: first, those who are in the dawn of life, our children; second, those who are in the shadows of life, our sick, our needy, our handicapped, and those, third, in the twilight of life, our elderly."
Senator Biden's version offered "a nation noble enough to treat those at the dawn of life with love, those at the dusk of life with care and those who live in the shadow of life with compassion."
In that story, Dowd also introduced the P-word, though placing it in the mouth of an anonymous hostile source:
Members of rival Democratic camps, who did not want to be quoted by name, said the question of Senator Biden's appropriating passages from another's speeches was a legitimate campaign issue. "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."
Here and now, Dowd and/or the NYT editorial staff moved quickly this morning to lance the boil. If you check out the on-line version of MoDo's 5/17/2009 column, "Cheney, Master of Pain", you'll find that the relevant sentence now reads:
Josh Marshall said in his blog: “More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.”
And at the bottom, there's this note:
Correction: May 18, 2009
Maureen Dowd’s column on Sunday, about torture, failed to attribute a paragraph about the timeline for prisoner abuse to Josh Marshall’s blog at Talking Points Memo.
[Facts and links from "NY Times' Maureen Dowd Plagiarizes TPM's Josh Marshall", TPMCafe, 5/17/2009.]
[Update: Choire at The Awl argues that "I mean, 'talking to' clearly means 'emailing with.'", and "A bunch of non-writers who comment on blogs will denounce Dowd because she steals from her friends. They are ridiculous, because everyone steals from their friends, or else how would you get through the day?".
The trouble with this theory is that "wanted to weave the idea into my column" is a funny way to describe inserting a 43-word sentence essentially verbatim.]
[Update #2: Tucker Carlson says:
[T]he whole thing is an interesting window into how her column is created. I knew someone once who was on her call rotation. Every week, she'd call and collect amusing lines from him, which she'd invariably use without attribution. Every writer does this to some extent — I've made a lot of money over the years stealing from my conversations with Matt Labash — but she seems to do it more than most.
He seems to be saying that Dowd routinely has people on her "call rotation" dictate material to her over the phone, which she writes down verbatim — punctuation included? — and then uses in her columns without attribution. This is the most bizarre explanation yet. So it might really be true. ]
[Update #3: A response from a NYT spokesperson, according to Michael Calderone at Politico.com, appears to agree with Choire's "everyone steals from their friends" theory:
Journalists often use feeds from other staff journalists, free-lancers, stringers, a whole range of people. And from friends.
This is a typically journalistic use of "feeds", I think, as in newsfeeds, defined by the OED as "A service by which news and other frequently updated information is provided on a regular or continuous basis, often for onward distribution or broadcasting by media organizations, Internet service providers, etc.", the metaphor being that there are these pipes of raw materials pouring into troughs in the press room, which the reporters and editors combine into the tasty dishes they serve to the public. Again, I've never had an undergraduate refer to uncredited sources as "feeds", but it's something to look forward to.]