Nate Thayer: freelance plagiarist?

Sloppy, yes. Plagiarist ... doesn't look like it.

To follow up on Thursday’s post about the plagiarism accusations against freelancer Nate Thayer made by author Jeremy Duns and repeated/reinforced by New York Magazine:

Looking at Mark Zeigler’s San Diego Union-Tribune article and Thayer’s piece for NK News, side-by-side, yes, it sure does seem like Thayer lifted from Zeigler’s article, sources, and quotes. That’s what Duns decided, and that was enough for him to post that Thayer stole Zeigler’s article.

It shouldn’t have been.

Duns checked with Thayer on Twitter. They exchanged two tweets. Duns sent several more, but Thayer did not see fit to answer them. Duns admits that he didn’t try to contact Zeigler nor anyone at NK News. He was convinced that he was right, and therefore didn’t see the point of checking. “There’s no other explanation,” Duns said, and “far, far too much” evidence to be anything but plagiarism.

I spoke to Michael Coyne, who was quoted in both the Zeigler’s and Thayer’s articles. He said he definitely spoke to Thayer — several times and at great length — and provided him with a significant pile of documents for his article. Coyne says his quote in Thayer’s piece was what he said. As for the similarity to his quote in Zeigler’s article, Coyne said he’s been asked about subject many times for several news stories, and “I say the same thing every time.”

I was not able to contact Gene Schmiel — Thayer gave me a wrong number. I’ve asked, several times, for the correct one. Thayer also did not care to explain the quote from Rick Santorum in his article: “Kim [Jong Il] doesn’t want to die. He wants to watch NBA basketball.” Thayer’s piece said that Santorum said this “last year,” but it also appears in Zeigler’s 2006 piece. Either Santorum said the same thing twice — and one of those times, he said it even though Kim Jong Il was already dead — or, more likely, Thayer found the quote in this New York Times article from December 2011 and either he got confused or his editor did. Understandable mistake.

As far as I can tell at this point, Thayer actually did interview everyone his article claims he did. He made it easy for Duns to accuse him of plagiarism because his attribution was sloppy and he represented quotes that were said in other places as if they were said to him (only after, as far as I can tell, first checking in with the people quoted to make sure that was okay with them). I’m not sure if that’s ultimately his or his NK News editor’s fault, but since the problems also show up on the article when Thayer posted it on his personal site, he shares at least some of the blame.

That doesn’t make him a plagiarist, and Duns was wrong to accuse him without giving him time to explain himself. Michael Moynihan spent weeks looking into Jonah Lehrer before he felt confident accusing him of fabrication. Duns gave Thayer a few days and some tweets.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,