It’s bad enough to write a two-source story about plagiarism. It’s worse when the two sources are the plagiarist and a defender.
But that’s what the Los Angeles Times does in its piece on Chris Anderson’s new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price in which he borrows liberally from Wikipedia, of all places.
The LAT primarily quotes Anderson, the Wired editor, who while defending himself at least admits that he “screwed up,” though it would be extremely difficult not to admit this one. The other source is a former Wired editor, something LAT reporter Carolyn Kellogg doesn’t point out.
It’s particularly bad that the LAT doesn’t talk to the person who discovered the theft, the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Waldo Jaquith. How do you miss that one? Or if you can’t reach him, how about a journalism professor?
Without this stuff, the piece comes off like, well, let me “borrow” from Edward Champion, who caught other instances of Anderson’s borrowing in Free:
With quotes like “My attribution failures aside, this is an important book,” the piece reads like it (came) from a press release issued by Anderson’s publicist.
Anderson defends himself by saying it was hard to figure out how to attribute to Wikipedia, since its entries are subject to constant changes, so he didn’t:
Typically, the passages Anderson took from Wikipedia would be accompanied by a footnote or end note in standard citation format. For Web pages, citations include a date and time — a time stamp — indicating exactly when the Web page was accessed. Anderson disagreed with his publisher about the citation format to use in the notes.
“I made the decision to nuke the notes because we couldn’t come up with a compromise citation form,” Anderson said by phone Wednesday afternoon. “I thought time stamps looked silly in books and my publisher insisted on time stamps. I made the decision to nuke the notes entirely — and then to integrate the attribution into the text, which I — ” he took a breath, “then screwed up.”
And the LAT regurgitates this bit of spin whole:
For Anderson, the worst part is that it was Wikipedia that was shortchanged, because the site has been the target of frequent criticism about its accuracy as a source.
As opposed to getting caught.
The LAT’s other source is Mark Frauenfelder, who, oddly enough, defended Chris Anderson on Anderson’s own website on Wednesday at noon, the day before the story went to press.
Here’s Frauenfelder’s extremely supportive comment at longtail.com, Anderson’s site:
I’m surprised that the VQN is coming down so hard on you about it. It’s obvious you didn’t try to pull a fast one. You just made a mistake of carelessness, which is human and forgivable…
Because it’s so easy to copy and paste, this kind of thing is going to happen to other writers…
Your candor and proactiveness in this matter is commendable. You are doing the right thing.
Yes, if this were one or two cases it wouldn’t be a problem. But this is clearly more than that. More baffling, the LAT doesn’t even quote Frauenfelder defending Anderson’s offenses. He gets to flack Anderson’s book:
Frauenfelder offers an example. If his words are available for free, “the way I can survive is to use that in my favor — so people download my book, know who I am and are willing to pay for a live presentation somewhere, which is something that can’t be copied.”
Something else that’s not explored is that Anderson took whole paragraphs verbatim from Wikipedia, an offense that is presumably more difficult to catch than if it were a theft from a more stable source like a book. An author may well conclude that he can steal from Wikipedia and by the time the book is printed, the hive mind will have changed the wiki’s text enough to render the plagiarism uncatchable.
Look, Anderson is of course entitled to present his side of the story. Everyone screws up—though plagiarism is a deadly sin for a journalist, especially one so senior—and I’m not saying the LAT should have written a crucifixion piece.
But there’s no one here to independently comment on Anderson’s missteps, and there’s no excuse for that.Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.