Press Box

The Plagiarist’s Dirty Dozen Excuses

Take off your shoes and socks and count them all.

Zachery Kouwe

Zachery Kouwe joined the plagiarists’ pantheon this week after Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Robert Thomson informed New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller that Kouwe, a Times reporter, had been lifting from the Journal.

Like the thousands of plagiarists who have gone before him, Kouwe pleaded both guilty and innocent of the charge, telling the New York Observer’s John Koblin that he had not knowingly plagiarized.

“I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought [the Journal copy] was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there,” he said, describing his clip-and-paste-and-report-and-then-rewrite journalistic methodology.

If that “stupid and careless and fucked up” sounded too much like an overt excuse-making, Kouwe was smart enough to quickly bow before the journalism’s hanging judges. “There’s no excuse for this,” he told the Observer. “I understand the seriousness of it. Even if it was inadvertent, that doesn’t make it any less serious.”

Upon getting busted, the plagiarist almost always dodges and weaves like Kouwe is doing. Slate reader Michael Clark, a historian who has taught at several U.S. universities, e-mailed me his X-ray of Gerald Posner’s excuses after I reported the plagiarisms of the Daily Beast chief investigative reporter in Slate. The evasion strategies charted by Clark seem to be universal among plagiarists.

To condense Clark, the plagiarist generally seeks to convince his accusers that:

1) He had no reason or need to plagiarize.2) He did much of the same reportorial work as the journalist whose work he ended up lifting (see Kouwe’s inference in the Observer that he consulted the source documents behind the story he plagiarized).3) He doesn’t recall seeing the source from which he copied.4) He emphasizes the misery the scandal has caused him.5) He claims overwork or high productivity (see Kouwe’s comment to the Observer about writing 7,000 words a week).6) He emphasizes how few words he lifted compared with his complete output.

To that list I’d add:

7) He didn’t really plagiarize because the lifting wasn’t intentional.8) He pinched only “boilerplate” or “wire” copy, which should not count as plagiarism.9) He—or a researcher—simply forgot to properly credit the source.10) He was working late.11) He is an alcoholic or drug user; he was distracted by family problems or work pressures; he was overwhelmed by psychological problems or is on psycho-pharmaceuticals.12) He is young and inexperienced (an excuse that the 31-year-old Kouwe, who has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Colorado and is on the board of governors of the New York Financial Writers’ Association, cannot make).

The plagiarist attempts, as Clark puts it, “to soften the charge against them by misdirecting your attention and by muddying the core issues.” These evasions allow the plagiarist to displace the key question of whether his copy was adequately sourced with the more delectable conversation about the plagiarist’s mental state, his sloppy work practices, the unintended effects of modern technology, and the “meaning” of originality.

Now and again the busted plagiarist will claim “complete responsibility” for his act—but what that really means is that he wants everybody to leave him alone. Which everybody usually does. As Trudy Lieberman demonstrated in a 1995 piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, many journalists caught red-handed plagiarizing their colleagues weren’t banished from of the profession. Among the well-known names in Lieberman’s article who lifted copy but whose careers continued are Edwin Chen, Fox Butterfield, Laura Parker, and Nina Totenberg.

Totenberg, whole stole from the Washington Post in 1972 while working at the National Observer, told Lieberman, “I was in a hurry. I used terrible judgment. … The fact I used so many direct quotes obligated me morally to credit the Post. I should have been punished. I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.” (In a hurry; terrible judgment; made a mistake—sounds like excuses from the dirty dozen, doesn’t it?)

But Totenberg wasn’t young when she plagiarized the Post. She was 28 years old. Which means that unless the 31-year-old Kouwe, who has left the Times, committed acts of plagiarism beyond what’s been uncovered in the early reports, he need not throw himself off a building. As Lieberman reminds us, the mean game that editors talk about punishing plagiarists is just that. Talk.


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