Plagiarism, the Latest -Gate

The latest Democrat tiff gets its airing in the press

Plagiarism-gate, as it’s (inevitably, tediously) become known, didn’t really involve plagiarism—any more than taking something from someone who’s given you permission to do so isn’t so much theft as, you know, borrowing. Barack Obama had borrowed some text for a speech he delivered in Wisconsin this weekend from a speech given two years ago by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick—with Patrick’s consent. But, in a conference call yesterday, Clinton campaign strategist Howard Wolfson treated the borrowing as a moral failing—a scarlet A of Appropriation that, like a red sock mixed in with Obama’s character, stains the whole load. Never mind that the allegations of plagiarism, given Patrick’s consent, are “silly” (The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder) and “a stretch” (TNR’s Noam Scheiber) and “ridiculous and trivial” (the Huffington Post’s John Bohrer) and “silly” again (former Bill Clinton speechwriter David Knuset). And never mind that the allegations amount to a “desperate gambit” on the part of the Clinton campaign on the eve of today’s Wisconsin/Hawaii Democratic primary.

Never mind all that, because none of it—the obvious silliness, the obvious spin—prevented Plagiarism-gate from becoming A Story. Or from, as an inevitable result of that storyhood, binding the words “Obama” and “plagiarism” together in the text of our pre-primary political discourse. As Time’s Mark Halperin noted, all three network news programs gave Plagiarism-gate play last night. (NBC aired it as its lead story.) It’s been all over the blogosphere. And all over the MSM:

“Clinton Camp Says Obama Plagiarized in Speech” (New York Times)

“Clinton Steps Up Attacks on Obama: Plagiarism, Financing Accusations Come on Eve of Wisconsin Primary” (Washington Post)

“Clinton aides say Obama used another politician’s lines” (LA Times)

“Clinton Camp Accuses Obama of Plagiarism” (AP)

“Obama, Clinton trade plagiarism snipes” (UPI)

“Clinton aide accuses Obama of plagiarism” (Politico)

“Clinton Camp Accuses Obama Of Plagiarism” (US News and World Report)

“Hillary Clinton hits Barack Obama with plagiarism allegation” (The Times of London)

Et cetera. As The Nation’s Ari Melber noted, “that absurd charge against Obama already turned up 84 news hits by Monday afternoon.”

The accusation of plagiarism was, of course, a strategic move—and one that took for granted that the press would disseminate the lusciously salacious morsel (“Plagiarism!”). As media-management strategy goes, it was brilliant. Plagiarism, after all, isn’t just a political pitfall; it’s Morally Wrong, and universally acknowledged as such. (The plagiarist is not only morally lacking, but also just plain lazy.) The Clinton campaign, appropriately/ironically enough, relied on The Power of Words—in this case, a single word, “plagiarize”—to overcome the power of nuance and narrative. The “Obama/plagiarize” headline stuck; the “oh, but he didn’t really” subhead largely got lost in the shuffle.

Which is not, by the way, to fully to excuse Obama in this case. His appropriation of Patrick’s lines was particularly egregious in its precision. (See the back to back comparison of the Obama/Patrick speeches in question, here.) Obama should have credited Patrick for the borrowed words, and has admitted as much himself. But the narratives have unfairly singled out Obama as an agent of appropriation. As TNR’s Noam Scheiber noted,

By drawing Obama into a back-and-forth about who’s the bigger plagiarist, Hillary scores a strategic victory even if this particular battle ends in a draw. That is, she drags Obama into the muck of ordinary, mud-slinging politics even if she hasn’t proven he’s done anything egregious.

But the stories—in another turn of Wolfsonian brilliance—went beyond simply Questioning Obama’s Moral Character. The Clinton campaign, via the press, took full advantage of the Obama/Plagiarism narrative to circle back—in a leap of logic that merged accusations of intellectual dishonesty with accusations of intellectual immodesty—to Clinton’s favorite talking point: “words are cheap, it’s action that matters.” Here’s, for example, The Washington Post:

Speaking to reporters last night, Clinton was asked about her campaign’s accusation of plagiarism against Obama. She said she had no idea what impact it will have on Tuesday’s vote. “I leave that to all of you to figure out,” she said, then added: “Facts are important. I’m a facts person. If your whole candidacy is based on words, it should be your own words.”

Perhaps we’re in need of a conversation about what, precisely, constitutes plagiarism in an age of mass-appropriated everything—and about where, precisely, we should draw the line dividing appropriation from plagiarism in the rhetorical fog of the campaign trail. You could argue that the theft of words and ideas and themes and memes is so rampant in our shared lexicon of political discourse that it ceases, in some ways, to be theft. We’re not Foucault’s authorless society—yet—but our political discourse inches us ever closer to that authorial abyss in which ideas’ provenance and possession are muddled to the point of meaninglessness. See, for just one example, ‘McCain, John,’ whose Web site—as Jason Linkins pointed out in the Huffington Post—has appropriated Hillary Clinton’s pet “ready on day one” message. Nor is the Clinton campaign itself above appropriation. For the final word on the words (about the words), here’s ABC News’s Jake Tapper:

In a conference call just now the Clinton campaign would not guarantee that Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, has never used someone else’s rhetoric without crediting them.

I asked Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass, if they could assure the public that neither Clinton nor McGovern has ever done what Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, did when he used the rhetoric of Gov. Deval Patrick without footnoting him.

They would not.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.