The New Gatekeepers

I was plagiarized by Jill Abramson

February 7, 2019
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s an odd feeling to have an otherwise unremarkable passage you wrote appear as an exhibit in an accusation of plagiarism, especially when it relates to the former executive editor of The New York Times, and especially when the allegedly plagiarized passages appear in a book about the state of modern media. And yet, here we are.

Just to recap, a chunk of a post I wrote for the New Gatekeepers blog on CJR in May of last year, about Facebook cracking down on “low quality” news, appears with minor alterations in former Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s book Merchants of Truth. I know this because Michael Moynihan, a correspondent for Vice News Tonight on HBO, collected a number of examples of alleged plagiarism in a Twitter thread he posted on Wednesday, and my blog post was one of them.

I checked the end notes of Abramson’s book and couldn’t find any reference to my post (no footnotes appear in the body text, at least not in the Kindle version). Do I feel as though something has been stolen from me? Not really. It was a factual description, not something creative that I agonized over for weeks. And yet, it’s still irritating that there seems to be no mention of where it appeared at all. Would it have been that hard to say “as mentioned in CJR”? That’s in part what plagiarism is—not a law, but more of a standard of behavior that we (hopefully) uphold, especially as journalists.

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It may be an antiquated concept with all the aggregation that happens nowadays, but this isn’t a quickly lashed-together blog post, it’s a book by the former executive editor of the Times, who should know better. And based on the response from the journalism community, it reminds some (including me) of the nonchalance with which that newspaper often publishes stories other outlets have covered without mentioning or linking to them, something the paper’s own public editor referred to as a failing.

In an email response to me, Abramson said she spent all night going through her book because she takes the claims of plagiarism so seriously, and that she planned to fix what she said were mistakes. “The notes don’t match up with the right pages in a few cases, and this was unintentional and will be promptly corrected,” Abramson said. “The language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text. This, too, will be fixed. I wouldn’t want even a misplaced comma.” She added: “all the ideas in the book are original. The passages involve facts that should have been perfectly cited in my footnotes and weren’t.”

In all, Moynihan listed six examples in which material from other places appeared with relatively minor alterations in Abramson’s book, and that was just from the chapters that referred to Vice (that’s six examples from three chapters). Writer Ian Frisch also posted more than half a dozen examples from the book where large sections from a piece he wrote about Vice—a piece that Frisch said was only ever published on his personal website—were used, including quotes from his interviews.

Frisch later noted that while credit is given in the fine print at the very end of Abramson’s book, “the endnotes do not go into the depth of how much this section about Thomas relied on my article. She quotes Thomas as if he’s speaking to her directly. This would not fly for a mag article.” Moynihan noted that at least two of the examples he gave—including one where a paragraph was used virtually verbatim—were not cited in the book’s end notes at all.

In a response on Fox News,  Abramson said, “I most certainly did not plagiarize in my book,” but later added on Twitter that she takes the allegations seriously. She also said she “endeavored to accurately and properly give attribution to the hundreds of sources that were part of my research,” and that the attacks on her book from Vice staff reflected their unhappiness with her portrayal of the company. Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, which paid a rumored $1 million for the rights to the book, issued a statement saying the book was “exhaustively researched and meticulously sourced,” but that if any changes or attributions were necessary, “we stand ready to work with the author in making those revisions.”

A number of people have defended Abramson’s approach, including NYU law professor and intellectual property expert Christopher Sprigman, who said on Twitter that the “so-called plagiarism controversy is fake,” since Abramson just took “basic facts and re-phrased them.” True plagiarism, he said, is taking others’ original ideas or distinctive expressions without credit. While that may be the way some people see the concept, it’s not the way Abramson herself described it when she was the managing editor of the Times and the newspaper was accused of plagiarizing two sentences from a piece written for The Miami Herald. Even though the sentences were factual, Abramson told then–Slate writer Jack Shafer that the Times writer had committed plagiarism. “I think when you take material almost word-for-word and don’t credit it,” that qualifies as plagiarism, she said.

There’s no question that the word “plagiarism” has a wide range of definitions. A guide to how to avoid plagiarism published by Sprigman’s university, for example, has 11 different variations on the term. It defines what it calls the “too-perfect paraphrase” as when a writer cites a source “but neglects to put in quotation marks text that has been copied word-for-word, or close to it,” which seems like a fairly accurate description of what Abramson did with several passages. And as Moynihan mentioned, at least two of the sections that she used that are virtually verbatim are not referred to in the end notes at all. 

I’m glad to hear Abramson is planning to fix her citations and/or quote certain passages that were originally unquoted. Is there a fine line in some cases when it comes to what qualifies as plagiarism? Definitely. We’ve likely all been guilty of cutting and pasting a sentence or two here or there when we were in a hurry. But some of the examples referred to above seem to go far beyond a simple slip of the keyboard — they are rewritten, but not very much, and some are not given any credit at all. That’s not the kind of thing one would expect from someone of Abramson’s caliber.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.