(Swans - April 5, 2010) Of all the professionals that have suffered during the long-lasting crisis that has afflicted news-printing businesses and book publishers, copy editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers have been the most affected as their employers laid off a great number of them in an effort to reduce costs to counter their losses in advertising revenues. The impact of these drastic cuts in editing personnel has led to a serious upsurge of publishing scandals, factual errors, fabricated stories, and recurring acts of plagiarism. This scourge is even more pronounced in the New Media -- the online publications on the World Wild Web. In an age of cut and paste, in which bloggers are under highly-competitive pressure to update their work on an hourly basis, and sometimes by the minute, with tidbits of news and whatever hoped-for scoop du jour, while, for lack of resources, copy editing and fact checking rely increasingly on the authors, ethical standards are fast becoming a thing of the past, opening the way to ballooning malfeasance. Fiction is presented like fact; who writes what and what is written become irrelevant; embarrassing errors are being scrubbed; illusion turns into reality; trust -- that sacred bond among people -- is commodified and sacrificed on the altar of self-advancement. It all leads to deception and delusion built on tricks and lies, cheating being the MO of the trade -- a sad reflection of the depravity of our culture and the societal rot that is in desperate need for a return to integrity -- journalistic and otherwise.
One may recall Jayson Blair, the former journalist at The New York Times (NYT), who was lifting passages from other newspapers, faking interviews, or reporting from places he had never gone to about people he had never met. Or Charles Pellegrino, whose book Last Train from Hiroshima was so faked, and his alleged Ph.D. inexistent, that it forced its embarrassed publisher, Henry Holt & Co., to stop the presses, so to speak. Or again James Frey, the Oprah Winfrey favorite until it was revealed that Mr. Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, had been widely fabricated, which led Winfrey to confront the impostor on her show; a confrontation Maureen Dowd, the NYT columnist, found refreshing. "It was a huge relief [...] to see the Empress of Empathy icily hold someone accountable for lying," Dowd wrote at the time -- the same Dowd who got caught in May 2009 pilfering the words of Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. And, of course, if memory serves, one should recall two other bad apples in the historians' quarter, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose...
Recently, Jack Shafer at Slate uncovered the trickery of Gerald Posner, a former chief investigative reporter for the Daily Beast, who consistently and serially plagiarized while remaining in denial and advancing the same age-old excuses that did not pass muster with Shafer -- the same excuses that were invoked by Zachery Kouwe, who used to peddle his wares on the NYT blog DealBook until it was discovered that his hands were embedded into the cookie jar, namely the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and The Financial Times. (Clark Hoyt, the current public editor at the NYT, had a few words of dismay to say about the encounter...written, of course, in NYT polite and PC words.)
The plagiarizers always advance the same lame excuses. It was "inadvertent" due to "sloppy work methods"; it was "banal stuff," just "banal sentences," "background snippets" inserted in a large computer file containing one's "own work." It was truly unintended "carelessness." Both Hoyt and Shafer provide a similar presentation of these excuses in their respective articles. Full disclosure: I too use a text file when I research an issue for an article like this one, but especially for my Blips. I copy and paste small snippets of factual information from many sources, but first, I always copy and paste the URL where I found the text, and second, I never, ever include my own writing in that file so that I am absolutely confident that whatever resource the file contains is not mine. If I use any of it, I include quotation marks or indent the text and insert a link to the source. No confusion is possible.
Worse cases of plagiarism in which a piece is lifted in its entirety and reused without any permission from or attribution to the author are becoming widespread, and nobody is immune. A few years back, Swans co-editor Jan Baughman uncovered a plagiarizer in our pages. Thanks to her eagle eyes she noticed a change of style in the author. I related the story with a zest of dark humor in my July 2004 piece, "Plaisirs d'Amour." Sadly, other examples abound. Jonathan Bailey, who maintains and edits the Web site Plagiarism Today, "which he founded in 2005 as a way to help Webmasters going through content theft problems, get accurate information, and stay up to date on the rapidly-changing field," recounts in "The Stupidity of Plagiarism" his encounter with hard-core plagiarists who steal entire pieces and republish, or repost them under their own names!
In his third article on Gerald Posner, Jack Shafer writes:
In an essay published by Media Ethics (fall 2006), Edward Wasserman attacks the wrong of plagiarism at its roots. Most everybody concedes that plagiarism harms plagiarized writers by denying them due credit for original work. But Wasserman delineates the harm done to readers. By concealing the true source of information, plagiarists deny "the public insight into how key facts come to light" and undermines the efforts of other journalists and readers to assess the truth value of the (embezzled) journalistic accounts. In Wasserman's view, plagiarism violates the very "truth-seeking and truth-telling" mission of journalism.
"Plagiarism," writes Jonathan Bailey, "isn't just a lie, it isn't just cheating (in cases of contests or academia) and it isn't just copyright infringement (in many cases), it's also incredibly stupid. Anyone who takes a moment to think about plagiarism will quickly realize that the odds of getting away with it, especially repeated plagiarism of text works, are effectively nil." To me, this plague epitomizes the lack of respect for the creativity and hard work of others writers, the thwarting of an ethical code, and the abandonment of any form of civism.
Another ominous and pernicious trend has surged on the Web, the function of scrubbing, which I learned of from Craig Silverman through a Google search. (I found Jonathan Bailey thanks to him.) Silverman is a freelance journalist based in Montreal, Canada. He edits the Web site Regret The Error - Mistakes happen in which he chronicles the many factual errors printed in major newspapers. He is also a columnist for the Columbia Journalism Review and an associate editor at PBS MediaShift.
Scrubbing is not a new phenomenon. It began with the event of large corporate databases whose millions of entries needed to be weeded of incorrect entries -- data cleansing or "data scrubbing" became a necessary task for IT departments, performed by hand initially and eventually with the use of powerful software tools. However, it has evolved, in the words of Silverman, into "the practice of fixing an error in an online article without including a correction." In its more extreme form scrubbing refers to the removal of paragraphs, articles, incorrect facts, and embarrassing tidbits from Web sites altogether.
At this point it is worth noting that according to a March 2010 survey and report by the Columbia Journalism review, "Magazines and Their Web Sites" (PDF, 571kb), authored by Victor Navasky with Evan Lerner, scrubbing, poor fact-checking, and avoidance to issue clear corrections are rampant phenomena on the Web. Here is a short summary offered by Silverman in regard to the Web sites of the printing press:
- 87% correct minor errors, such as typos or misspellings, with no indication to readers.
- 45% correct factual errors with no indication to readers.
- 37% correct factual errors and append an editor's note detailing the nature of the error to the content where the mistake appeared.
- 6% leave major factual errors in as they originally appeared in the content, but add an editor's note at the point of the error.
- 1% note all errors in a special section of the Web site.
Here again, we are facing deception and obfuscation though as Silverman explains in an instructive article, "you can't disappear your errors online." Still, major publications keep playing the game of hide and seek. Here is an example that Marsha Cohen, a political science lecturer at Florida International University's School of International and Public Affairs in Miami, Florida, and a regular contributor to the Inter Press Service news agency Washington, D.C., bureau chief Jim Lobe's blog, highlighted in regard to the Israeli publication Haaretz:
Haaretz not only "updates" numerous news articles to bring them into greater harmony with the hasbara narrative of the moment, but, more unfortunately for diligent researchers, has adopted a policy of removing dates from all articles. It is not at all unusual to pull up an article from the Haaretz website and find it impossible to determine either its original date of publication or the date of its most recent rewrite. Past articles are very difficult to locate through the Haaretz website's archive, and sometimes vanish without a trace, unless they've been reproduced in their entirety somewhere in the blogosphere. Sometimes cached versions can be located by Googling, but not always.
On Swans I do correct typos, usually the day after publication (e.g., in the last issue, I misspelled the last name of Christine Spadaccini in the "Note from the Editors," and immediately corrected the typo after receiving an e-mail from the author pointing me to the error). Peter Byrne also alerts me to a typo here and there and I make the necessary corrections. I do not consider that there is a need to indicate these corrections to the readers. However, all factual errors, when found, are clearly indicated with a dated Ed. note (here is an example). I never change the text. The error stands, a correction issued. End of story. In rare cases, a factual error could be treated like a typo -- for instance an incorrect date, say 1935 when it should read 1936 -- but I'm not sure that this is acceptable behavior and am increasingly reluctant in such instances to resort to scrubbing. In the ultimate form of scrubbing, I am occasionally asked by a former contributor to delete an entire article, as if it had never been published; occasionally out of spite, or more often because the person has a new job and is concerned that the content will have negative consequences. Imagine asking the NYT to unpublish an article! Better stay on the side of Ethics 101. One gains a reputation and earns respect from one's peers, and, as an artisan, there is no better satisfaction than meriting such a respect and the sentiment (and peace of mind) that a well-done work brings.
When major news organizations are plagued by occurrences of plagiarism in their midst and scrubbing on their Web sites in abandon, major authors and journalists are repetitively caught sinning in the name of glorious profits and name recognition, you have to wonder what effect these transgressions have on second- and third-tier organizations (not to mention the next generations...). It's all for the taking and for the having. It is a mirror behavior that is found in all layers of society, from the financial titans that lie and cheat to enrich themselves and impoverish the rest of us, to the heads of industry who outsource jobs, cut their work force, and are highly compensated for furthering the destruction of the polity on which they depend (another ironic contradiction of the system that's imposed upon us), the tiny operator who tries to make a buck by working as fast and poorly as he can to move to the next job and make a few more bucks... And it is all about the corridors of political power that promote and legislate the behaviors in search of financial contributions that keep them winning another term, and yet another.
As said, plagiarism and scrubbing are a reflection of a depraved culture and a rotten society. Aren't you sick and tired of the lies that are at the core of our societal system?
If you find Gilles d'Aymery's work valuable, please consider
Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Gilles d'Aymery 2010. All rights reserved.
Have your say
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.
About the Author