"Plagiarism" vs. "ghostwriting" again

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Jim Romenesko, "Brent Bozell urges liberal media to 'tell the truth,' while he fibs about writing a column", 2/13/2014:

The conservative Media Research Center often urges liberal news outlets to TELL THE TRUTH, but the Reston, VA-based press watchdog isn’t telling the truth about its own leader: Brent Bozell doesn’t write the syndicated column that appears under his byline. 

It is longtime MRC media analysis director Tim Graham who writes “almost everything published under [Bozell's] name,” a former MRC employee tells me in an email. “That includes his weekly column. Same goes for his books, which at least carry Graham’s name in a secondary billing, but also aren’t written by Bozell (but Bozell keeps 80-90% of the advance and all profits!)”

Two other people with ties to MRC confirmed that Graham is Bozell’s ghostwriter – and that Graham is not happy with the assignment.

“Tim just resents having to do it,” says a former employee.

According to his Wikipedia entry,  L. Brent Bozell III is a graduate of the University of Dallas, which bills itself as "The Catholic University for Independent Thinkers", and has this to say about Mr. Bozell's authorship practices:

Plagiarism includes any act of claiming as your own the words or ideas of others. Whenever you take someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own, you are plagiarizing.  […]

It does not matter if the source is a friend or family member, a published critic or an anonymous webpage, a book, a journal article […] —if the original source of any of the ideas or words in your work is someone else, and  you do not cite that source, you are plagiarizing.

Romenesko reports some pushback of the "but everybody does it" variety:

I was advised to contact a third MRC employee who, I was told, would confirm Graham’s ghostwriting duties. He did that, but defended the practice of “people signing off on agreeable words written for them.” He asked me: “How many speeches has Obama written the last ten years? Should he have prefaced the State of the Union with ‘My fellow Americans – I didn’t write this?’”

I agree with this defense, to a certain extent. It's long past time for our society to have an honest conversation about honesty, honor, and authorship. We give students a clean, hard, harsh definition of plagiarism, according to which it's obvious that every politician and senior executive in the country is a plagiarist. Students, not being stupid, see this implicit contradiction — and therefore file anti-plagiarism strictures under the category of "irrational adult rules that I need to be careful not to be caught breaking, even though they have no moral or practical basis".

At least in the case of the equally-hypocritical rules about under-age drinking, we no longer pretend that alcohol is forbidden for everyone: it's just forbidden for most college students.

I agree that students should not be allowed to cut-and-paste their essays and research papers. And much more seriously, students should also be forbidden to hire others, or to have their parents hire others, to do their assignments for them. But rules of this kind make no sense in the absence of a discussion about why political speechwriters are nevertheless OK — or where the boundaries should be for columnists, historians, novelists, and so forth.

I know of one case where "a syndicated column that appeared twice weekly in 100 of the largest newspapers in the United States, with a combined circulation of 35 million readers", under the byline of a University president no less, was actually written by a series of poorly-paid graduate students. I don't know what the general practices in this area are, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that many other long-running columns have been partly or entirely ghostwritten. However, it would surely surprise the readers of these columns, as the existence of Romenesko's scoop attests.

And that, I think, is the point. It would be bizarre for Jim Romenesko to write a piece revealing that Obama's speeches (or Rand Paul's speeches) are actually written by staffers. Everybody knows this, or at least assumes it. But everybody doesn't assume that Brent Bozell's column is actually written by one of his employees — that's why Romenesko's piece on the subject can exist.

It would be helpful (at least to teachers and students) if newspapers and magazines had clear, written policies on this issue. The policy might be "The columnists that we publish are brand names, not people, and the text that appears under their bylines may have been written by others, just as Aunt Jemima doesn't personally prepare the pancake mix and syrup sold under her name."

But this is surely not the way that most readers now think about about syndicated columns. Everyone knows that Aunt Jemima is a fiction, and that political speeches are written by speechwriters. But our current (probably naive) belief is that columnists actually exist and mostly write their own columns.

Earlier LLOG posts on related topics:

"Unwritten rules and uncreated consciences", 5/4/2006
"Plagiarism and restrictions on delegated agency", 10/1/2008
'The writer I hired was a plagiarist!", 7/13/2010
"Rand Paul's (staffers') plagiarism", 11/7/2013.

Update — For another set of domain-specific "plagiarism" issues in the news, see Dana Milbank, "Rand Paul and Ken Cuccinelli accused of stealing NSA lawsuit", WaPo 2/12/2014:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been caught using purloined passages in several of his speeches. Now the aspiring presidential candidate stands accused of filing a lawsuit stolen from its author.

Since December, the libertarian lawmaker, a tea party favorite, had been working with former Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein to draft a class-action suit seeking to have the National Security Agency’s surveillance of telephone data declared unconstitutional; the two men appeared together as early as last June to denounce the NSA’s activities.

But when Paul filed his suit at the U.S. District Court in Washington on Wednesday morning, Fein’s name had been replaced with that of Ken Cuccinelli, the failed Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia who until last month had been the state’s attorney general.  […]

Fein, who has not been paid in full for his legal work by Paul’s political action committee, was furious that he had been omitted from the filing he wrote. “I am aghast and shocked by Ken Cuccinelli’s behavior and his absolute knowledge that this entire complaint was the work product, intellectual property and legal genius of Bruce Fein,” Mattie Fein, his ex-wife and spokeswoman, told me Wednesday. “Ken Cuccinelli stole the suit,” she said, adding that Paul, who “already has one plagiarism issue, now has a lawyer who just takes another lawyer’s work product.”

Back on the Bozell issue, this note from an acquaintance is relevant:

FWIW, I wrote a newspaper column for 15 years and knew a lot of other columnists, from conventions and listservs, and I think Bozell's write-for-hire would have been regarded as way outside normal behavior for columnists, and more normal (and accepted) from politicians and executives, who after all have other jobs.

Since Bozell is basically a political agitator/entrepreneur, perhaps this puts him on the "politicians and executives" side of the fence?

Update #2 (hat tip to Eugene Volokh) — Adam Serwer, "Rand Paul didn't plagiarize his NSA lawsuit", MSNBC 2/13/2014:

A spokesperson for RANDPAC forwarded an email from Fein denying Mattie Fein’s allegations. “Mattie Lolavar was not speaking for me,” Fein said in the email. “Her quotes were her own and did not represent my views.  I was working on a legal team, and have been paid for my work.” Bruce Fein confirmed to msnbc that the email was from him.

This seems consistent with (what little I know of) the norms of legal drafting, where the people who file a lawsuit are not normally expected to have written all (or even any) of the text that makes it up. If that's an accurate view, then this is yet another area where the idea of "plagiarism" needs to be refined or modified or even eliminated.

Update #3 — More on the Bozell situation in Ben Jacobs, "Ex-Employees of Conservative Figure L. Brent Bozell Say He Didn’t Write His Books or Columns",  Daily Beast 2/13/2014:

Employees at the MRC were never under any illusion that Bozell had been writing his own copy. “It’s an open secret at the office that Graham writes Bozell’s columns, and has done so for years,” said one former employee. In fact, a former MRC employee went so far as to tell The Daily Beast: “I know for a fact that Bozell didn’t even read any of the drafts of his latest book until after it had been sent to the publishers.”



  1. exackerly said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 6:36 am

    One time when I was TA'ing for a large freshman composition class, two students turned in identical papers. They thought they could get away with it because the papers were submitted to different TA's. As it turned out, I ended up reading both papers, and confronted them. To my considerable surprise, instead of being embarrassed, they defended themselves on the grounds that "we worked together on the paper." I was too flabbergasted to point out that in that case, both names should have appeared on both papers. But it made me wonder whether students are really getting the point about plagiarism, or are we just assuming they already know what the rules are?

    [(myl) In the places that I know about, students are positively bombarded with strictures about all the detailed forms of plagiarism that they're not supposed to commit. The problem is that these homilies don't make moral sense in the context of what students know about the real world. So (at least to some extent) they write them off as just another example of adult hypocrisy.]

  2. jfruh said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 7:03 am

    To be completely blunt, the biggest difference between a student plagarizing a paper and a politician giving a speech written by someone else is that the words have been appropriated with the consent of the person who wrote them — consent that was granted because the writer was paid by the speaker. This goes for writers who subcontract out the writing of their columns and books too, and is the heart of the latest Rand Paul controversy, which is not so much about plagarism as it about unpaid legal work (note the use of the phrase "work product").

    [(myl) I don't agree. It's increasingly common for students to pay others to write papers for them — this is explicitly contractual "writing for hire", just as in the case of speechwriters and other ghostwriters, but in a pedagogical context, it's still plagiarism. In fact, I think it's worse than cut-and-paste plagiarism, because the plagiarizer doesn't even bother to do the work of finding appropriate material to appropriate. And also, it becomes part of the package of benefits that ensures better outcomes for wealthier students.]

  3. maidhc said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 7:17 am

    I don't think that employing speechwriters is the same as plagiarism. It's a question of honest attribution. No one expects a politician to have personally written all of their speeches. But if you publish a novel, it's expected that you wrote the whole thing yourself.

    [(myl) Expected by whom? Where is it written? My point is that these "everybody knows" assumptions, which are different in different domains and among different groups of people, should be made explicit and discussed.

    In the case of novels, there's a spectrum of cases, from assistants who provide factual notes, local expressions, procedural details, visual descriptions, etc., to ghostwriters who turn out substantial portions of the published product. It's really not at all clear who has which assumptions about these things.]

    The inspiration for Aunt Jemima was Billy Kersands' American-style minstrelsy/vaudeville song "Old Aunt Jemima", written in 1875.

    The R. T. Davis Milling Company hired former slave Nancy Green as a spokesperson for the Aunt Jemima pancake mix in 1890. Nancy Green was born in Montgomery County, Kentucky, and played the Jemima character from 1890 until her death on September 23, 1923. As Jemima, Green operated a pancake-cooking display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, USA in 1893, appearing beside the "world's largest flour barrel".

    The Quaker Oats Company bought the brand in 1926. No one portrayed Aunt Jemima for ten years following the death of Nancy Green.

    In 1933, Quaker Oats hired Anna Robinson to play Aunt Jemima as part of their promotion at the Chicago World Fair in 1933. She was sent to New York City by Lord and Thomas to have her picture taken.

    Anna Short Harrington, born in 1897 in Marlboro County, South Carolina, began her career as Aunt Jemima in 1935. She had to support her five children, and she moved with her family to Syracuse, New York where she cooked for a living. Quaker Oats discovered her when she was cooking at a fair.

    (Information from Wikipedia.)

    It was Nancy Green who played a large part in promoting the Aunt Jemima brand, and subsequently Anna Robinson. In addition, the Aunt Jemima brand was the subject of a celebrated trademark case.

  4. Doug said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 8:57 am

    MYL said "In the places that I know about, students are positively bombarded with strictures about all the detailed forms of plagiarism that they're not supposed to commit."

    That's good to know. I attended Penn in the 1980s, and I don't recall that plagiarism was explicitly discussed. (Or perhaps it was and I thought it was obvious.)

    I think we all knew we weren't supposed to buy pre-written term papers, or copy from published sources without attribution. (Of course in those pre-Web days, cutting & pasting was not quite so easy.)

    And the distinction between students & politicians was obvious to me: the point of a political speech is to explain or promote political positions; the author's identity isn't important. But the point of most student work is to show the grader what the student knows and can do.

    I'm not sure if I thought about it at the time, but I think columnists etc. were a gray area then as they seem to be now.

    Reflecting on this, I think MYL is certainly right that it's high time for clearer guidelines in this area.

  5. Fiddlesticks said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    If a pr employee is ghostwriting an executive's columns, it doesn't follow that the pr employee is qualified to be CEO.

    But a freelancer or underling who's ghostwriting a journalist/columnist's work IS self-evidently qualified to do his/her boss's job. Who needs the middleman?

    I feel sorry for Tim Graham. He seems to be passionate about his calling.

    Some bosses take up-and-coming employees under their wing, mentor them and give them opportunities to shine. And other bosses choose to simply squeeze them for all they're worth.

  6. Robert Coren said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:04 am

    I'm having a certain amount of trouble understanding the mindset of a student who thinks it's OK to hire out the writing of papers because politicians do it. Why does this person think they're in college? (I'm afraid that I actually know the answer to that question.)

    [(myl) Why are they in college? The usual amalgam of having a good time, making friends, pleasing their parents, getting a credential, learning some stuff — just as it was for us, really, except that "avoiding the draft" no longer applies. What's new is that wealthy students may have had tutors to help them in high school, or a consultant to help them write college essays, or extensive help from their parents (to a degree that I think was not normal 50 years ago). And they see respected adults hiring people to write stuff to help maintain and advance their careers. So you can tell them that they're not supposed to hire someone to write a term paper for them, just like you can tell them that they're not supposed to drink alcohol until they're 21, and not supposed to smoke pot or take unprescribed amphetamines at any age. And as a result, they understand that all of these things are forbidden. But they don't necessarily think that any of them are dishonest.

    I don't know if it would really make any difference to have a frank discussion of what "authorship" means in different social contexts. But maybe it would help.]

  7. wally said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:25 am

    "IS self-evidently qualified to do his/her boss's job"

    What if the nominal author spends 30 seconds or 5 minutes telling the underling what to write? I think I could tell someone the idea for a column in 30 seconds, and they could flesh it out and make it presentable. The writer may be a craftsman but not a designer.

    And in the case of speechwriters I think it is assumed that the speechwriter is crafting a speech, but that the politician has set the tone and probably the specific policies being addressed.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:41 am

    I think you could make the argument that Bozzell is at least loosely akin to a politician/CEO. His primary vocation is not necessarily as a wordsmith, but as an "activist," meaning CEO, chief fundraiser, and chief public spokesperson and/or celebrity face (on tv, at conferences, etc.) for various non-profit advocacy groups advancing various agendas. Successfully fulfilling that role requires a different skill set from that necessary to just produce the columns/books. Graham might or might not have that separate skill set, but you certainly can't infer he would just from his writing ability. OTOH, most politicians/CEO's whose bylines appear on op-ed pages do so in a sporadic and occasion-specific fashion, not as regular columnists, so that does put him into more of a gray area, although of course my sense is that there have long been whispers about Famous Columnists who grace the nation's op-ed pages who are very heavily reliant on their uncredited "research assistants." Just as there are rumored to be instances out there of Famous Tenured Professors who rely on their "research assistants" to an extent that would have been unacceptable had they done the same thing as grad students producing their dissertations (and/or as junior faculty producing the early scholarship that made up their tenure file).

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:58 am

    FWIW, Bozell's dad was also a well-known activist in right-wing circles (drifting toward the end of his life into more marginal/controversial waters) whose contributions to American political discourse included working as a ghostwriter (for 1960's influential "The Conscience of a Conservative," published under the nom de plume "Barry Goldwater").

  10. bulbul said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

    Isn't it all a simple question of doing one's job? A student's job is to learn and be evaluated on it, of which writing is an integral part, and so submitting somebody else's work is cheating. Or would allowing somebody else sitting for a student's exam also fall into a grey area? A journalist's job is to write and if they pass off somebody else's work and get paid for it, they're cheating. In contrast, a politician's job is /insert_joke_here/ and if you want to call them cheaters for having their speeches written by somebody else, you might as well call them out for being chauffered around.

    [(myl) This is a sensible argument. But instead, what students are told is that plagiarism is per se dishonest and immoral.]

    Expected by whom?
    By the readers, who else? Especially if you're already an established name and people buy your books just because of that name. And the same criterion applies to celebrities – if I am interested in, say, Gordon Ramsay's opinion on something and I want to read an op-ed written by him, I want to be sure it's actually written by him (and thus includes at least three instances of "fucking").

    Where is it written?
    Don't some things go without a saying? At least when it comes to students' work, I have to agree with Robert Coren's comment above and wonder what a student who thinks that plagiariams is one of those "irrational adult rules" thinks they are in college for. Do they also think that it's ok to pay someone to take their exams?

  11. D.O. said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

    I don't see how discussion of plagiarism is related to students using work for hire to do their assignments (BTW, what about parents helping their children with the homework. It is considered a good thing, right?). Students are supposed to produce essays or whatnot as 1) an exercise in the development of certain writing skills and 2) as evidence that aforementioned skills were actually developed by them to some extent. That students can quote someone in support of their thesis or whatever is actually is one of those skills that have to be demonstrated. But what does it have to do with plagiarism? Student coursework has no independent value outside the course they are taking and if it does, the whole other set of rules applies. Unless, of course, it's an MBA class were they teach you how to write as an executive (answer: hire someone).

  12. Chris C. said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

    @Wally — I think any writer — certainly, any fiction writer with a decent amount of published work — will tell you that the idea is the easy part. Any idea that can be expressed in 30 seconds is not going to be so supremely valuable that the expounder should get all the credit for the resulting column inches.

  13. Rubrick said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    @jfruh: What about a person who (hypothetically) writes a regular column, but is occasionally replaced by another writer who is not only apparently not paid for his work, but who actively solicits donations on behalf of the "real" writer? And who is fully credited and indeed thanked?

    By which I mean, um, keep up the good work!

    (Apologies for baffling the majority of LL readers; I couldn't resist.)

  14. Ken Brown said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

    What is the writing *for*?

    A students essay or exam answer is meant to tell us something about how well they know their subject. So we want their own words. A President's speech is a way of communicating governement policy. Its inherently a communal thing. Extreme case is something likr the Queeen's Speech at the opening of a UK parliament. Not her own words at all.

    Its about expectations.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

    Seems to me the schools could use the two different terms to talk about it. Plagiarism covering using someone's words without permission, as well as using published work without proper credit (with or without permission). And a "no ghostwriter" rule to cover using another's unpublished words with permission. With a simple and straightforward explanation of why that is wrong in this particular context. It sounds like the current reasoning for why it's wrong given to students is basically "because we said so". Instead of telling them the real reason… because the teacher/school wants to see the students ideas and writing.

  16. Graeme said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 5:19 am

    Plagiarism is per se immoral in the academic world. But it's an exceptional milieu, where (ideally) sincerity and originality are valued, as is obsessing over sources and referencing.

    Even within it, you find different ethics at play. In law (my area, but also in history for example) there is an obsession with referencing and sources, and authorial voice. For epistemological reasons (you are building opinion on other opinions). It may sound hoity toity but we look askance at scientific teams where Prof X's name wins the grant and a right to first authorship out of all proportion to her involvement in research and writing. The other way of looking at this is that we are not very adept at working in teams…

    University VCs/Presidents, in a real sense, are no longer part of academia: they are salesmen for a corporate brand.

    US politics is more candidate centred than in other English speaking democracies. Where it is party-centred you assume the speaking is 'on behalf of', and maybe even has been collectively discussed, vetted and filtered before it is broadcast. This may explain why political plagiarism accusations have less traction outside the US.

  17. J Lee said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 8:12 am

    as a recent graduate I can say that plagiarism warnings are standard on every syllabus and are summarily ignored, above all because many writing assignments will be for garbage filler courses; it is an obvious impossibility to convince students to both read and provide original analysis of some novel acknowledged as "classic" by "educated" people.
    I would even say given the rate of remedial English typical undergrads require that it is a better exercise to simply reformulate the words of someone lame enough to have offered their interpretation of what Wuthering Heights really means (who gives a shit). The ability to write succinctly or convincingly is obviously a more valuable skill.

    I really want an explanation of the remarkable fact that Shakespeare is considered the paragon of English prose despite his works not even being fully intelligible to the modern reader. yet this generation will hear of the eskimo-snow myth exclusively as a debunked myth, much like (to address the post) the notion that JFK wrote Profiles in Courage

  18. Robert Coren said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    (Responding to myl's notation on my earlier comment)

    I guess my problem is that I would think, among those reasons for attending college, "learning some stuff" would be fairly high on the list (which is perhaps naive of me). Among the "stuff" one would expect to be learning is how to write a paper (which includes not only the technical aspect of the writing itself, but also how to find out the things you need to know to be able to discuss the subject). Yes, perhaps it would be better to tell the students why plagiarism is inconsistent with this goal rather than just say "plagiarism is forbidden", but it saddens me to think that a significant percentage of college students need to be told this.

  19. Doug said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

    Speaking of gray areas of plagiarism, there's this item:


    "Students trying to set up an honor code at the University of Texas at San Antonio may have unintentionally done what they set out to prevent: They lifted whole passages from other documents without credit.

    Even the draft document’s definition of plagiarism was plagiarized, tracking nearly identically a section of the honor code at Brigham Young University."

    (I thought I recalled this being mentioned on Language Log some time ago, but I cannot find a relevant post.)

    This surprised me because I didn't think that an honor code — or say an anti-discrimination policy, or anti-harassment code — was the sort of thing to which the concept of plagiarism would apply.

    In this case, chunks of words were lifted, but "plagiarism" is usually defined to include the use of mere "ideas" even when disguised in different wording.

    Surely the people who write such documents are not expected to come up with these rules entirely independently, without reference to earlier examples, but I've never seen one with footnotes crediting sources. Are they all examples of plagiarism then?

    E.g., I looked up a sexual harassment policy from Harvard, and one from Yale:



    The ideas expressed are very similar, and often the words are too. Neither document includes any citations of sources. Are they both then examples of plagiarism?

  20. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 4:08 pm

    @Robert Coren: I share your belief (or at least hope) that "learning some stuff" is high on the list of most students' reasons for attending college, but I'd guess that it's not high on the list of most students' reasons for taking general education courses (that is, courses whose content is not clearly related to their major or their planned careers).

  21. Jonathan D said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    Sportspeople often have regular columns in the sports pages – and I think it's fairly rare for them to play a large part in writing them. I don't how many readers are aware of this, but surely it's jsut one more step to other columnists…

  22. CD said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 9:23 pm

    Who considers Shakespeare "the paragon of English prose," J. Lee? Looks like you skipped a lot of classes.

  23. J Lee said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 12:57 am

    what you mean is that unlike far too many I had the foresight to first wonder whether I would fully understand something written in 1500, let alone have enough dateless nights to waste analyzing it for a pass-fail grade. since it's not even a debatable point whether the Jeopardy-answer for Shakespeare would be 'considered history's best writer in English,' it looks like you could use some snark classes yourself

  24. Colin Fine said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    When you hear works by Sir Arthur Sullivan played on BBC Radio 3 (and I expect other classical music stations), it is very likely that what they play is the overture to one of the 13 comic operas he wrote with W S Gilbert.
    Unfortunately, it has now been established that he wrote only two of those overtures: the rest were written by assistants, under his direction.
    I have yet to hear a radio announcer acknowledge this.

  25. Robert Coren said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

    @Colin Fine: Yes, I've noticed that, too. (Am I correct in my recollection that the two he did write are Iolanthe and Yeomen of the Guard? Those two are certainly the most musically sophisticated of the lot.)

  26. Colin Fine said,

    February 18, 2014 @ 8:30 pm

    @Robert: new, those are the two.

  27. jan said,

    February 23, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    Hollywood screenwriters rarely get mentioned by name for their work. The stars get the credit and attention.

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