Great Writers Steal

My Slatearticle on Rajinikanth was lifted by India Today.

I don’t wake up on most mornings to find apologetic e-mails from Indian media moguls in my inbox, but then again it’s not every day that Indian media moguls publish my work under their own names. There was no doubting that this was the real thing. Any man can apologize, but only the millionaire CEO of a multiplatform media company who is also editor-in-chief of a major news magazine can write an apology that is defiantly nonapologetic.

Dear Mr. Hendrix,As you are surely aware we have apologized to our readers for the inadvertent error in which part of your article on Rajinikant got published in my letter from the editor.I would like to apologize to you as well.I have also written to the Editor of Slate magazine.Sincerely,
Aroon Purie
India Today

I love that “As you are surely aware.” You can practically hear him sighing as he types it before dashing off, “the inadvertent error in which part of your article on Rajinikant got published in my letter from the editor,” as if we were both just walking down the street and bumped into each other and suddenly an article I wrote for Slate leapt into the middle of his letter from the editor in India Today  (warning: large PDF), like some kind of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ad from the ‘80s. Finally, there is the beauty of, “I would also like to apologize to you as well.” OK, go for it. Feel free. I’m waiting. Are you going to—oh, I get it. The expression of the desire to apologize was the actual apology. Psych!

As you would expect, when something this simultaneously ridiculous and amazing happens, Rajinikanth, the South Indian mega-star with the fabulous moustache, is usually involved. In this case, he started it. I wrote a piece for Slate introducing Rajinikanth to Western readers who may not have heard of the tiger-nado from Tamil Nadu. It was the eve of the release of his mega-movie, Enthiran, and India was aflame with Rajinikanth fever. Articles on Rajinikanth were everywhere but mine happened to tickle Indian funny bones in just the right way and it got tweeted, retweeted, and e-mailed from inbox to inbox. And then, suddenly, the first 12 sentences of it appeared in India Today, the most widely read newsmagazine in India, under Aroon Purie’s byline.

India Today was founded by Purie during the Indian Emergency of 1975, when India’s president suspended the constitution for 21 months, and it has long been a beacon of journalistic integrity in India. Today, it has about 1 million readers and is like the more sober older brother of weekly newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek. Purie himself has received so many awards that if you stacked them on top of one anothher they’d stretch to the moon and back, and now the India Today Group includes multiple magazines, TV, and radio stations. They publish everything from Money Today to Golf Digest India.

Plagiarism is the hobgoblin of journalism, and the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse: so many sources to steal from, but also so many people to catch you doing it. Back in 1999, VN Narayanan, the editor of the Hindustan Times * resigned after being caught lifting entire columns from other journalists and publishing them under his own name, and India Today has been accused of plagiarism in the past. But one look at a photo of Aroon Purie and his sober suits and Serious Media Mogul haircut and you know that this is not a man who would want to write copy that reads: “If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth.”

There are all kinds of rumors floating around about what actually happened, the most delicious of which is that in his three decades as editor-in-chief of India Today, Mr. Purie may have managed to ruffle the sensibilities of his own staff. Since he was stepping aside as editor-in-chief of the magazine and becoming editor-in-chief of the entire India Today Group, they wanted to give him a parting raspberry and so they put together a piece that plagiarized from an article everyone was familiar with.

Whether it’s intricate power politics—or intricate super-stupidity—that led to the plagiarism, how it’s played out has been a classic case of old journalism vs. new. The story was first broken by online blogs, including the media watchdog group, the  Hoot, and when the cultural blog MumbaiBoss posted the story, India Today chose their comments section to issue their first public statement on what had happened. The apology was later printed in the Southern India edition of India Today. 

This official apology blamed jetlag for the theft, and if that’s the case then my heart does go out to Mr. Purie’s staff. If this is a man suffering from a narco-klepto disorder (also known as “sleep stealing”) then he must be watched vigilantly. Every yawn is a signal to lock up your laptops, every announced nap is a sign that your wallet could suddenly go missing. But the jetlag apology wasn’t meant to be taken as a serious statement, it was more of an old school attempt to make the problem go away with a silly, “Whoops, I’m tired!” shrug. Only with the new media, problems like this don’t go away. While print journalists in India are said to be unlikely to report on the infractions of their colleagues, the Internet knows no loyalty, and all over India online writers are still tweeting and blogging for a better explanation.

So it gives me great pleasure to do Mr. Purie a solid favor. He just sent a much lengthier explanation for what happened to the editor of Slate, David Plotz. It outlines how this happened, promises an investigation, and assures the reader that there will be consequences. There’s gossip that these aren’t just idle words either, and that India Today is undergoing some internal adjustment as you read this. Here is the letter in its entirety, and as far as I’m concerned this is a satisfactory close to the matter:

Mr. David Plotz
Slate Magazine
Dear Mr. Plotz,
I would like to bring to your attention that an error has been made by me in good faith.
I would like to take this opportunity to fill you in on what precisely happened.
It’s my normal practice in my letter from the editor to enumerate why we carry a particular cover story. In the regional edition of our weekly newsmagazine India Today issue dated Oct 18th 2010 we carried a cover story on the film star Rajinikant.
I normally ask for inputs on subjects that are specialized , as for instance a superhit filmstar from the south, from those in charge of editing the copy. Some of the inputs which were sent to me on Rajinikant were unfortunately taken from an article authored by Mr. G Hendrix  in your magazine. This was not known to me. I believed it to be original copy and a portion of it got included as inputs in my longer letter from the editor which got published. I greatly regret this error.
An apology has already been carried in the subsequent issue.  India Today Group has always stood for integrity in journalism and thus serious action has been taken against those concerned.
I hope that you understand and accept this sincere apology.
Aroon Purie
India Today

Correction, Oct. 21, 2010: This article originally misspelled the name of the Hindustan Times.
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