The XX Factor

Keep It Simple, MoDo

Like Slate ‘s Jack Shafer , I’m curious to see whether Maureen Dowd uses her next Times column to address the mini-plagiarism scandal surrounding her last one (Dowd admitted to unintentionally lifting a paragraph from Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall, blaming the confusion on a conversation with a friend who quoted the passage to her without attribution.) But I can’t agree with Shafer that Dowd’s explanation sounds “plausible - if a tad incomplete.” Her account of how Marshall’s observation found its way into her column is patently absurd. Unless the friends in question are HAL-9000 computers, who sits around over coffee transmitting published paragraphs word for word and comma for comma? And if the “conversation” in question took place via e-mail, why not say that in the first place and forward the relevant e-mails to her editor and the press?

The lift itself seems like an understandable, if sloppy, cut-and-paste error that could have, and probably nearly has, happened to anyone who makes a living cranking out copy on tight deadlines: Dowd cut a quote from TPM as part of her research, dumped it in a Word file, and by the time she finished her column, she’d forgotten what came from where. But why not simply admit as much? By conjuring the conversation with that “friend” possessed of total recall for everything except the Web address of Talking Points Memo, Dowd made herself look defensive, unprofessional, and guilty.

Even as I goggle at Dowd’s bad judgment, though, I can kind of identify. Everybody’s had a moment like that, if not in their professional life, then in their personal one: You unintentionally do something really stupid, then, in a flurry of shame, make up a ridiculous explanation that you then have to stick by no matter how bad it makes you look. That’s why for me the takeaway from this dustup has less to do with journalism than with personal responsibility. When you make a fool of yourself in public, no matter how tempting it is to come up with a flattering spin, the best explanation is the simplest one: I screwed up and I’m sorry. In another line from the disputed column - a line she presumably wrote herself - Dowd describes Nancy Pelosi’s reaction to recent Republican shenanigans in language that’s inadvertently prescient: “[Pelosi] acted like a stammering child caught red-handed, refusing to admit any fault and pointing the finger at a convenient scapegoat.”