Double Plagiarism

Today’s most depressing story involves former WaPo reporter and columnist, former host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and current Fox News commentator and columnist for The Hill, Juan Williams. He got caught lifting whole sections from a Think Progress piece for his column, and when confronted with the plagiarism, blamed his research assistant, who seems to have ghosted a goodly portion of the column.

TAP’s Paul Waldman makes the obvious judgments on Williams’ sins and horribly ineffective defense:

What he actually got caught doing was an act of double plagiarism, even though only one of the acts of plagiarism is considered problematic. After all, plagiarism is taking someone else’s words and passing them off as your own without attribution. Williams does that whenever his assistant writes something for him that then appears verbatim in his column, which from his explanation sounds like something he does regularly. It’s just that this time, his assistant passed off CAP’s words as his own to Williams, and Williams then passed off CAP’s words as his own to his readers, when he thought he was only passing off his assistant’s words as his own, which otherwise nobody would know about.

Waldman goes on to speculate that a lot of “big-time pundits” have significant research help, what with their having to juggle their highly paid jobs with, well, the social and professional obligations of “big-time punditry,” and faults Williams only for failing to give his research assistance some meager public credit when he’s actually helping write the column.

Maybe it’s just jealousy because I have to create about thirty times more content each week than Juan Williams or George Will or other “big-time pundits,” for what is likely a small fraction of their probable compensation, but I’m inclined to be less tolerant than Paul about this incident. With all the resources he has, Williams ought to be able to write his own stuff, and if he has to let a “research assistant” ghost for him now and then, he should be able to do the minimal Google searching to ensure there is no plagiarism. Failing that, he could at least take responsibility for the plagiarism in his own named column without throwing the assistant publicly under the bus.

Political journalism probably has more winner-take-all concentration of rewards, material and non-material, among a tiny elite than any line of work other than professional sports. It’s not a great deal to expect from those at the top–whose work, however good, is typically not leaps and bounds above that of hundreds of other people, professional and amateur–to maintain a minimal level of integrity about who actually generates that work. Admitting you use a ghost only when the ghost gets you in trouble does not pass the test.

UPDATE: As is often the case, Digby says it better.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.