by carl wilson

They Say Everyone's a Critic...

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... but in this case, the critic is everyone: Today in Slate, F.O.Z. Jody Rosen uncovers what just might be "in purely statistical terms ... the greatest plagiarism scandal in the annals of American journalism".

Update, Friday: The tale ends badly. It's worth reading the plagiarist Mark Williams' incredible aria of self-pity, quoted at the end of the blog post - it's very vulnerable underneath all the vituperation it aims at Jody. It's a case study in a pattern I've seen before, of people who end up kicking around writing/ publishing/ media jobs without the talent and/or energy to get anywhere, and end up extremely embittered at the more successful. And, in this instance, resorting to extreme measures to cover up their problems. There but for the grace of fortune... I do feel truly sorry for him, and hope he can bounce up after hitting bottom - into another field of endeavour.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 06 at 3:54 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

COMMENTS

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Mike Ladyman has evidently taken up a new line of work.

Posted by john on August 21, 2008 4:08 PM

 

 

I think they key, for me, at any rate, is that the career-castration of Williams is largely due to the plagiarized's pride and not any action on his own part to, say, win awards or get an edition in the 33 1/3 series for his writing.
And to publicly continue my own fascination here: who can deny the beauty of the stanza "sport touring motorcycles/corolla motorized fog lights/motor factors swansea/used motorcycles pennsylvania"?

Posted by Matt Collins on August 14, 2008 4:57 PM

 

 

Matt, the theory you're deploying is important intellectual armature - it keeps us from treating intellectual property as if it were the kind of absolute that the current trade regime would like. But it can't be grafted wholesale onto pragmatic dilemmas.

Brain surgery is a weird comparison, but let's extend the example: There is a system in place that encourages and rewards the production of original research in brain surgery, ensuring researchers with grants, tenure, prestige, fellowships, shares in patents, etc. However, to benefit by it they have to be *very* concerned about who gets credit for discoveries large and small, even though their insights and techniques will then be used by other surgeons without royalties being paid.

In journalism, writing, and other forms of creative work, there is similarly a need to strike a balance - we all need to be as free as possible to draw upon the ideas and breakthroughs of others, and on the mass of raw information that is out in the world, but people should be rewarded for producing work at a high level. So creative appropriation, which draws from but then adds to the pool of ideas for everyone (and usually doesn't conceal its sources), passes muster; outright plagiarism discourages quality work while not adding anything to the common store. Why didn't the Bulletin just publish a weekly list of recommended reading? Same thing except honest.

Btw, my personal position on downloading is that it is stealing (if not sanctioned by the makers of the music), but (a) pretty minor; (b) an understandable temptation; and (c) unpreventable, so musicians and companies have to adjust to it. Bootlegging for profit deserves to be prosecuted.

(On the other hand, a lot of music-label contracts are forms of indentured labour, which should also be prosecuted.)

Posted by zoilus on August 14, 2008 2:44 PM

 

 

Barry, I would argue that "theft" (your word) is exactly what brain surgeons do- they take a pile of research, apply it to someone else's brain, and do the nuts-and-bolts end. Do you expect a brain surgeon to it down and carefully figure out how to do brain surgery using original research every time they operate, or do they use existing research and slightly change it to suit the brain they are operating on? I would venture that we (sanely) demand that brain surgery not be original, and that we may also take that over to journalism (in the name of a relentless pursuit of objectivity). Journalism, even arts journalism, should strive to not be original at all, but "accurate".
And aren't you, in turn, romanticizing brain surgery- or all labour, for that matter? Moreover, let's not reduce the discussion to adolescent cries of pretension when we disagree.
Also: "bike computer laser" is inspiring.

Posted by Matt Collins on August 13, 2008 8:29 AM

 

 

That is a load of pretentious bull hockey. Writers are not names with copy attached to them, but--have you heard of these--actual people, applying a craft, and even doing serious amounts of homework before attaching said names to anyhitng. I don't know what you do for a living, Matt, but the next time someone takes the real work you've done and rips it off with a fancy argument attached to it, I trust you'll take it well. It's only romanticism and mythology that leaves you with the impression that you've really "done" anything anyhow. Next acceptable target for theft: brain surgeons.

That all talents are equal and that doing nuts and bolts homework is of no consequence--now THAT's some romantic hogwash.

Posted by Barry Mazor on August 12, 2008 6:04 PM

 

 

You know, I'm going to jump in and ask: aren't the articles better than the author or plagiarist? Like, I realize we live in a capitalist society and people need to make money off of their talents etc., but if author "a" writes the text and gets paid, why can't author "b" or "c" come along and make money off of it as well? I mean, ultimately, even if the ideas are original, shouldn't we glom onto the "good idea" and not distract ourselves with the troublesome "good author" who exists outside and independent of that author?
Take, for example, the posts above by guitar. There is essentially no content to guitar's texts, but we are explicitly of guitar as an author (somewhat like Dave Eggers). In this case, we are aware of Jody Rosen and Mark Williams, and their writing itself only serves to write an invisible text around these two names- the invisible text being this additional argument about copyright, which, I am sure, falls in some opposition to the debators' opinions on sampling, or, god forbid, downloading.
Ultimately, too, why we ask for a sort of "sovereign aythorship" from journalism is an odd question too- is journalism a sacred object by the journalist or is it news, something functional for the reader, some kind of service? There's nothing wrong with any of the latter, save the absence of any sort of self-important romantic artist myth, dependent entirely on names.

Posted by Matt Collins on August 12, 2008 3:40 PM

 

 

Marco - I believe in rehabilitation, but if this writer exists, then all signs are that he's not capable of doing the writing in the first place. You wouldn't plagiarize at this grand a scale just out of pure laziness. Although it takes some sort of talent to choose what to plagiarize, I guess, his main contribution seems to have been to insert grammatical errors.

On the other hand I'd kind of like to see Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair writing again - they were talented. But since no one will trust them, they'd be better off turning to fiction, a la James Frey.

And no, mostly I see those embittered writers turning not to plagiarism but, um, say, blogging.

Posted by zoilus on August 12, 2008 10:20 AM

 

 

"Williams wrote three stories a week for the Bulletin: the feature story, the Bullpen and the music. He was paid seven cents a word for the feature and then $125 for the other two combined."

If you're looking for complicity on the publisher's behalf, look at those rates. What can he be expecting at those rates?

Posted by Garnet on August 11, 2008 12:47 PM

 

 

Barry,

One digital tool (cut and paste) enabled this incident and a different tool (Google searching) rectified it, and now many tools (us comment providers) are debating it. That’s more than enough self-regulation for junior-cribber and professional PR-redactor alike…and a good model for the post-print world in general.

Posted by Brian on August 11, 2008 12:13 PM

 

 

Unattributed story theft is just plain theft, and I'm afraid hat what Jody encountered there (and my friend Brian Mansfield, of USA Today, cribbed from in there, as well) is very common in local pubs small as that one. Many have not yet gone online where they're more likely to get noticed. But they're all over the place-distributed as this one was.

The publisher (whom I've yet to be entirely persuaded was not also the writer-cribber), seems to believe, or wants us to believe he believes, that any press piece included in an artist's press kit becomes public domain P.R. free for he copping! I've never heard of any working professional who could think that this could be true.

There needs to be a way, at the very least, for DIY amateurs to better understand basic professional journalism rules --and I mean, the reasons for them, not just as a threatening ruler slap across the knuckles or turf protection.. Just not sure who can do the general education. This episode provides a little of that in itself.

Posted by Barry Mazor on August 11, 2008 11:41 AM

 

 

Er, "Run THROUGH the Jungle," that is.

Posted by DW. on August 10, 2008 8:17 PM

 

 

Heh. That too was a joke. Sorry if my irateness over the perps' attempt to minimize the import of their actions spilled over unduly.

I believe John Fogerty was actually sued for self-plagiarism. The magnate who owned the rights to "Run with the Jungle" sued him over "Old Man Down the Road."

Posted by DW. on August 10, 2008 8:15 PM

 

 

Marco,

Something like this is (or should be) a deal-breaker as far as ever working in journalism again goes. If, say, an accountant was caught cooking the books, they wouldn't ever expect to work in accounting again.

And as for "bigger journalistic crimes," your examples are a joke, right? You do realize there's a big difference between plagiarism or fabrication on the one hand and banal writing that you don't happen to like on the other?

On the blog Carl linked to, I posted a comment to this effect (and now I'm plagiarizing myself): Spare us all the whining about how this big meanie from New York had nothing better to do than pick on lil' ol' us just because we were STEALING THE WORK OF OTHERS ON A REGULAR BASIS. Contemptible.

Posted by DW. on August 10, 2008 2:30 PM

 

 

I skimmed the article and it seemed a little much-ado-about-nothing. In the sense that this was a nothing paper from nowheresville and bigger journalistic crimes are committed around the world every day. (Russell Smith's style advice sidebars, for instance, or letting Professor Florida tell us what is so great about our fair "TorBufChester".)

But what do you mean by: "It's a case study in a pattern I've seen before, of people who end up kicking around writing/ publishing/ media jobs without the talent and/or energy to get anywhere, and end up extremely embittered at the more successful." Do you mean that you've witnessed many such cases of embittered writers sinking into outright plagiarism, or just observed a quality of bitterness in some who occupy the lower ranks of the profession rather than striving, through hard work and cutthroat attitude, for something higher?

IMO Plagiarism is definitely an odious crime but if this poor guy somewhere in texas really repents and reforms his ways, I don't see why he must be banished from the land of writing and must turn to roofing or yardwork or promoting concerts at a garage-rock bar for the rest of his days. I mean, it's not like he's a sex criminal or something; don't we in a liberal society believe in rehabilitation for those who have gone astray?

PS I realize my last few comments have been rather contrary but I mean nothing by it.

Posted by marco on August 10, 2008 8:59 AM

 

 

What a denoument!

The delusional defensiveness of publisher (and writer) is terrible. There's *no way* the publisher wasn't consciously involved, given the op-eds -- unless Williams fed those to him too? And even so, once busted by Jody's investigation, publisher should have dropped Williams like a hot potato -- and he didn't.

The whole story really underscores the fragile economics of journalism. Writers are paid to deliver consumers to advertisers. I'm still not convinced that Williams exists! What's the advantage to the publisher of paying for plagiarized stuff? None!

The Bulletin is out of business -- no kidding! Any word about writers or publishers going after Ladyman for back pay? He'll be lucky if he's able to sell his assets and keep the proceeds. In the meantime, some evidence (other than Ladyman's not very plausible testimony) that Williams actually exists would be interesting to see.

Yeah, I'm a rubbernecker!

Thanks for the update, Carl.

Posted by john on August 9, 2008 4:23 PM

 

 

Beyond the very real annoyance for a working journo like Rosen, you have to declare this the accidental art work of the year or at least the best art to hit Texas since "Prada Marfa." The Bulletin is not perfect art (since it involves some sleazy, albeit small scale, exploitation) but still really, really, fascinating. Add to that, it's coming at a time when Alt Weeklies are struggling to justify their place. Well, here's one direction they could go in.

Funny story that may not have a point: I once ended a book of mine with a section that was a melange of Alt weekly reviews of the Tony Scott movie Domino, but with some of my own noun substitutions (like "Judi Dench" for "Keira Knightley").

I did credit the writers as unwitting collaborators. I don't know if that exonerates my own sleazy, albeit small scale, exploitation...But one writer did track me down to express her bemusement that i would find such seemingly disposable material fascinating enough to rework.

Posted by Brian on August 7, 2008 4:56 PM

 

 

I love that article and the author's bemused roundup: it's worse for him, of course, because he gets paid for his writing. I guess that alt-weekly is just the print prefiguration of those rss scrapers that snag blog content wholesale, with no apologies or even credit. You can't exactly get those folks on the phone either.

Posted by zh on August 6, 2008 9:17 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson