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You mean Lee Harvey Oswald DIDN’T act alone?!?

March 18, 2010

Gerald Posner

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    March 18, 2010 2:20 pm

    “Factuality — truth, itself — comes under suspicion.”

    Sure does. It also keeps the skeptic in me alive. Which is sad because I’d like to be more trusting, without being foolish. Not only are sources sometimes fraudelent ie. “Last Train from Hiroshima” their will always be reporters/writers like Posner are lifting intellectual property in broad daylight.

    I think some more plastic surgery will help Posner with his anguished conscience.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 2:25 pm

      Ouch. Tommy, I think you are mean enough to work for Slate….Besides, should a man with orange eyebrows be making fun of another man’s appearance?

      The problem is many sided, here. Skepticism is a good thing, but reporters are supposed to always do their best to verify what they write. Unlike Shafer, I have some sympathy for Posner’s excuses — the pace of work is too fast for the old kind of reporting, the deceptive ease of new technology leads into error. They don’t absolve him of guilt, but unless a reporter is on crystal meth, it is impossible to verify everything, avoid every instance of inadvertent plagiarism nowdays. Those who haven’t been charged with plagiarism would do well to show some humility and proper respect for hubris.

      • Tommy permalink
        March 18, 2010 3:26 pm

        The pace of modern reporting and the emphasis on “breaking news” may lead to some erroneous reporting, yet that’s not what Posner is accused of, is it. Plagiarism is premeditated, mistakes are not.

        I should show some humility to the best of my ability and respect the illness that is hubris because I have never committed or been charged with plagiarism? That doesn’t make sense.

        Sympathy is hard to impart on Posner seeing as this is not a new thing for him, plus he does not, in my judment, seem regretful. Instead he is playing the “blame game”.

        Poor Posner who must feel awful somewhere very, very, deep inside. Poor Tommy who has his own crimes to account for. Poor Mad Hatter who did not ask to be born with bushy orange eyebrows.

  2. rachel permalink
    March 18, 2010 2:34 pm

    I care!

    Isn’t it kind of, sort of, a reporter’s job to verify what they are reporting?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 5:00 pm

      Not all plagiarism is committed with forethought. Indeed, if you read Jack Shafer’s excellent disquisitions on the subject at Slate, you’ll say that “I didn’t do it intentionally, so forgive me,” is among the first and most popular defenses once someone is caught. And indeed, there are all kinds of plagiarisms, from copying someone’s words in outright theft, to using someone’s words (or even paraphrasing them too closely) without attribution. The plagiarisms Posner is accused of seem to be more a matter of hasty or lazy research rather than intentional larceny. Which does not excuse the act, let me say. But all reporters do research, and all reporters use other people’s language. It’s only plagiarism when you don’t properly credit your source. And who among us has not reported and written in haste, or exhausted and on deadline? That’s when unintentional plagiarism takes place, and while I will not say it could happen to anyone, for there may be paragons among us, I will say that striking an excessively righteous tone is to risk hubris.

      And yes, Rachel, it is the reporter’s job to verify what they are reporting. But no one’s perfect. That’s why newspapers run “corrections,” and it’s why some papers even have an obudsman.

      • Tommy permalink
        March 18, 2010 5:44 pm

        Correction: Ombudsman

        I was not aware that I was (in your words) striking an excessively righteous tone, if in fact that was directed at me. It is possible, I commented before having lunch. Also, years of skullduggery has me striving to be better than my past self which sometimes forces the pendulum to swing errantly into righteousness. Thanks for being a spotter.

        I am not sure if Posner’s alleged (let me add, and apologize for not doing so earlier) crimes are as harmless as you believe they are. I would not go as far as calling him a “journalistic vampire” as Frank Owen did, yet it is not my work that has been stolen. (more vampires?, enough already!)

        With so many writers out there struggling to get their work published, their authentic work mind you, topics like this sting.

        If anything, your blog has re-emphasized the trouble lazy writing can cause.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    March 18, 2010 7:03 pm

    Doesn’t the literary “is anything original” question go all the way back to Shakespeare?

    And didn’t we have a similar argument many years ago about hip hop music, in many a fan’s mind the most orginial genre of music since, I don’t know, rock and roll maybe, which also has roots in what came before?

    I agree, Chauncey Mabe, it is tricky.

    And well, as we say in Southwest Virginia, the hit dog hollers.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 10:49 pm

      That’s Helene Hegemann’s argument, Candice — authorship is up for grabs, it’s “authenticity” that matters. But while Shakespeare stole plots from other works — plays, poems, legends — he created something new and complete out of them. He did not appropriate blocks or pages of text. Generations of struggle were required to reach something like fair international intellectual property law. In Dickens’ time, his novels were reprinted in the United States with no royalties going to the author. Now all that’s about to be swept away in the space of a few years. The creator of a work of art has the right and expectation of being paid when that work of art is read, listened to, exhibited.

      Regarding rap music, I do not agree that it’s the most original genre since rock ‘n’ roll, but I will acknowledge its creativity and importance. And certainly Shields and Hegemann have the hip-hop model, where the mash-up was popularized (if not invented), in mind. But what works in rap music does not transfer cleanly to the written word. And it’s my understanding that when a rap artist samples a recognizable bit of someone else’s music, a royalty is paid.

      Having visible roots, as rock music is rooted in the blues and country, is not the same thing as appropriating someone else’s sentences, paragraphs, passages.

  4. John Karwacki permalink
    March 18, 2010 9:39 pm

    I was wondering if anyone else was thinking about rap music. When sampling becomes routine then intellectual property laws become useless. Just my opinion but its a damn good one. I like Slate but I love The Onion.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 10:41 pm

      Tommy,

      I did not have you in mind when I warned about “righteousness,” I was thinking of Shafer. On the other hand, I do not believe Posner’s alleged sins are harmless — I think they call into question, as I say in the original blog post, his entire body of work. But while I don’t think his excuses actually excuse his sins, I do believe him when he says he did not intend to plagiarize anyone else’s writing.

      This is what will be lost in the rush to digital media: Journalism is a hand-made product, time consuming and expensive. Print media advertising was leisurely and lucrative enough to support it. Internet advertizing is not. Hence, the kind of inadvertent plagiarism Posner admittedly committed will inevitably become routine. Brave new world, what?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 10:50 pm

      John,

      Obviously, you and I are on the same wavelength. Groovy.

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