Atlas, James. "When an Original Idea Sounds Really Familiar," New York Times, 28 July 1991,

 

Atlas, James. "When an Original Idea Sounds Really Familiar," New York Times, 28 July 1991,
p. E2.

The recent case of Joachim Maitre, Dean of Boston University's College of Education, has
brought attention to plagiary and plagiarism in journalism. Dean Maitre has lost his job as dean
(but remains on as a professor at the school) as a result of his plagiary which he attempted to
explain as a blackout resulting from the press of time. (He had stolen his commencement speech
from an article by Michael Medved, the film critic.

More recently, Fox Butterworth, often quoted in this file, was found to have filched from the
Boston Globe rather than doing his own work on the Maitre story. (It would appear that one can
take an idea and "localize" it for one's own readers and that is not defined as plagiary.)

The Washington Post recently reprimanded its Miami correspondent Laura Parker "for lifting
substantial portions of a story on mosquitoes from three Miami Herald articles."

"Gregg Easterbrook, a contributing editor to The Atlantic and Newsweek, who found out this
month that ‘Managing on the Edge,' a book by Richard Tanner Pascale of the Stanford Business
School included three pages borrowed nearly verbatim from an article Mr. Easterbrook had
published five years earlier in the Washington Monthly."

This new found sensitivity to plagiary, what is it? Is this a sort of "political correctness" for the
media?

"The novelist John Gardner, author of "On Moral Fiction," a thunderous Old Testament diatribe
against the lapsed literary standards of his contemporaries, was himself accused of plagiarizing
academic sources in a scholarly book on Chaucer. (Garner has even suffered posthumous
retribution: in the author's note to a weekly column she writes for the Benington Banner, his
ex-wife, Joan Gardner, describes herself as the ‘co-author' of ‘Grendel' and ‘October light,' two
of Gardner's best known novels.) Just this spring, Stephen B. Oates, a respected scholar and
biographer, was accused of having plagiarized portions of his 1977 biography of Abraham
Lincoln."

"In the end, none of these accusations entirely discredited the authors; tried in the court of public
opinion, they vehemently defended themselves and were, if no quite exonerated, more or less
forgiven."

"What is disheartening about so much of the plagiarism in the news these days is how shabby it
is, how merely expedient. These aren't literary appropriations but simply the latest manifestations
of our insouciance toward the written word. It is not ‘interesting' plagiarism. It doesn't provoke
us to speculate about the motives of the plagiarist, as we do in the cases of D. M. Thomas or
Gardner."

Atlas suggests that plagiary today could not be other than what it is, commonplace and
uninteresting. He asks rhetorically, "How could it be otherwise? The best-seller list is dominated
by ghost-written books, ‘as-told-to' books, books written ‘with' instead of ‘by.' Syndicated
columnists like Evans and Novak employ ‘research assistants' to help write their columns;
Congressmen employ speech writers. (It wasn't Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. who plundered the
speeches of the British politician Neil Kinnock, and act that knocked him out of the 1988
Presidential campaign; it was his speech writer."

"In this climate of verbal promiscuity, pilfering a few phrases here and there doesn't even qualify
as a misdemeanor. Writers are no more immune than anyone else to the temptation to cut
corners."