Dowd admits plagiarism

The AP reports:

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has admitted to using a paragraph virtually word-for-word from a prominent liberal blogger without attribution.

Dowd acknowledged the error in an e-mail to The Huffington Post on Sunday, the Web site reported. The Times corrected her column online to give proper credit for the material to Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall.

The newspaper issued a formal correction on Monday and corrected the version that appears online.

Interestingly, though, Dowd contends that she didn’t actually do anything wrong.  First, let’s look at the actual copy.  Here is Josh Marshall’s version:

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.

Here is Dowd’s version (from a screenshot here):

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.

I’ve marked the changes in bold, and you can see that the two are virtually identical. There’s no way to deny that this passage was cribbed from Marshall. Here’s where the story gets interesting.

Rather than simply say that she meant to credit Marshall and made a mistake, she tells a different story:

josh is right. 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. we’re fixing it on the web, to give josh credit, and will include a note, as well as a formal correction tomorrow.

As Plagiarism Today observes, Dowd is claiming that she remembered 41 words verbatim from a 43-word quote that she heard spoken aloud once in the middle of a conversation, when the person who spoke it was also repeating it from memory. That simply isn’t believable. But perhaps by “talking to a friend” she actually means receiving email from a friend.

Anyway, let’s accept Dowd’s story at face value. Suppose Dowd did believe that those were her friend’s words, rather than a prominent blogger. Did she obtain permission to use her friend’s words? It’s not plagiarism only when you copy a prominent blogger. It’s very hard to believe that the friend would have given her permission to use his words in a column without it occurring to him to mention that they were not actually his words.

But let’s set that aside as well. Let’s assume that Dowd obtained permission to use her friend’s words verbatim, and the friend simply forgot that they weren’t his own words. This is the best possible light we can put Dowd in. Under all these assumptions, is what she did okay?

In an academic setting, it is certainly not. You can’t claim someone else’s words as your own, even with their permission. If you quote someone, you must make it clear that it is a quote, and give proper attribution. The failure to do so is plagiarism.

But, for the New York Times it seems it’s okay. Politico’s Michael Calderone put the question to them:

That raised other issues about whether it’s common practice for Dowd to use entire passages from friends in her column without attribution. And when I sent a follow-up email about this to Dowd, she didn’t respond. . .

So I put the question of whether this is common practice for columnists before Times editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal, who passed me along to PR. But now I’ve now received a statement supporting Dowd from spokesperson Diane McNulty.

Maureen had us correct the column online as soon as the error was brought to her attention, adding in the sourcing to Marshall’s blog. We ran a correction in today’s paper, referring readers to the correct version online.

There is no need to do anything further since there is no allegation, hint or anything else from Marshall that this was anything but an error. It was corrected. Journalists often use feeds from other staff journalists, free-lancers, stringers, a whole range of people. And from friends. Anyone with even the most passing acquaintance with Maureen’s work knows that she is happy and eager to give people credit.

I don’t understand how the fact that Marshall has no problem means the Times doesn’t do anything further. The paper has its own standards to upkeep regardless of who’s complaining or not.

I think Calderone is right (except for the part about the NYT having standards to maintain). What we have here is a black-and-white case in which Maureen Dowd knowingly was using someone else’s words without attribution. The New York Times, when asked specifically about the matter, says that’s okay. One might think that, in the wake of the Jayson Blair fiasco, they might be a little more cautious.

POSTSCRIPT: It’s not relevant to the plagiarism, but it seems necessary to mention that Marshall’s remark is BS.  Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan in March 2002.  At that time, the Bush Administration was already actively deliberating what to do about the Iraq problem.  When else were they going to interrogate him?  You can’t interrogate someone you don’t have.

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