You mean Lee Harvey Oswald DIDN’T act alone?!?
Investigative journalist Gerald Posner finds himself caught in another plagiarism scandal, this time surrounding his bestselling book Miami Babylon. But we’d best get used to this kind of thing. It’s the wave of the future.
The pace of digital media, and the dramatic reduction in support available to journalists, means more shabby, second-hand reporting is being rushed into publicaiton.
At the same time, the very concept of “originality” is being challenged and the virtue of “credit” derided by advocates of the mash-up culture, like David Shields.
First, Posner. In February Posner resigned as chief investigative reporter for the Daily Beast after Slate.com documented at least five instances in which Posner used language lifted from the Miami Herald without attribution.
The problem, Posner explained in a Feb. 10 blog post, came in the shift from being a book writer, with two years to report and write, to working at “the warp speed of the net.”
Yeah, yeah, as Jack Shafer argues persuasively at Slate.com, that’s the kind of thing all the plagiarizers say. But apart from questions of Posner’s culpability, it also happens to be true. As reporters work ever faster, with less research support, on ever more stories, these types of mistakes will grow so common they won’t be news any more.
The latest dirt on Posner makes mockery of the “warp speed of the net” defense. Miami New Times reported Tuesday that Posner “stole liberally” from Frank Owen’s Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture (2003) for his own new book, Miami Bablyon.
New Times‘ Tim Elfrink is justified in crowing, “So what’s his excuse for plagiarizing at the presumably snail pace of book writing?” Owen is understandably outraged: “Gerald Posner is a journalistic vampire and should be ashamed of himself,” he tells New Times.
Posner does indeed seem ashamed of himself in his anguished response to these latest charges, posted yesterday on his blog — even as he attempts to dodge the full measure of guilt. He’s still blaming technology.
Yet, more is at stake than whether or not one writer or reporter stole, intentionally or not, the work of another. Factuality — truth, itself — comes under suspicion.
Shafer quotes an essay by Edward Wasserman to argue that plagiarism not only hurts writers, but readers, too.
“In Wasserman’s view,” writes Shafer, “plagiarism violates the very ‘truth-seeking and truth-telling’ mission of journalism.”
Consider: Long before Posner got caught up in these charges of serial plagiarism, he was a leading investigative reporter, producing 11 bestselling books, including one — Case Closed (1994) — that re-examined the Kennedy assassination and persuaded many readers (me among them) that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. No conspiracy, whether mobsters, Cubans, the CIA or the X-Files, was involved.
Now, fair or not, Posner’s entire body of work is subject to skepticism.
Alas, as we see more and more plagiarism scandals — and we will, trust me — new media mavens are calling into question the validity of such old-fashioned virtues as originality, credit, even, dare I say, authorship.
David Shields, who styles himself “a former novelist,” is getting a lot of attention right now for a book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. It’s a call for “authenticity” made up entirely of sentences and paragraphs lifted from other writers. As Susan H. Greenberg reports in Newsweek, Shields included footnotes, citing sources, only at the insistence of his publisher’s lawyers.
The argument — and more so the technique — of Reality Hunger makes Greenberg queasy: “Remixing is a powerful tool, but in an era of rampant intellectual dishonesty, it’s weakened by Shields’ disdain for citation.”
Greenberg closes by citing 17-year-old German novelist Helene Hegemann.
When Hegemann’s acclaimed first novel, Axolotl Roadkill came under charges of plagiarism last month, she did not beat her breas, like Posner, or apologize. Instead, she said, it did not amount to theft “because she was using the text in a new way.”
“‘There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” Hegemann told a Berlin newspaper.
So maybe Posner is just a bit ahead of the curve (or behind it). In five years, perhaps, no one will care about this kind of thing any longer. We’ll be too busy grooving to all those blended works of art, journalism, culture.
I can hardly wait.