Copying without plagiarizing

Ever since I got into the journalism biz–way back in the halcyon days of 2004–I’ve noticed an interesting dilemma: Journalists at large, national outlets will steal ideas and other people’s reporting without any more attribution than “it’s been reported.” And that’s if the original reporters are lucky. Usually the shoe-leather reporting simply gets swiped and passed along.

Folks at Roll Call found this particularly grating. Roll Call is by no means a large publication; it’s read almost solely in DC, and even then almost solely on K Street and Capitol Hill. But it does a ton of reporting, and good reporting at that: of the guys I was working with at RC, five now work at the Washington Post, one works at the Wall Street Journal, and one works at CNN. These guys are no slouches. What was frustrating for them, though, was to see their hard work get picked up on by some anchor at CNN or some reporter at the Washington Post or some editor at the Wall Street Journal and get passed along without any sort of credit. Two or three times a week someone would walk into the newsroom and say “Did you see what CNN did this morning?” and everyone would know that the story they worked six hours on the day before had been reduced to a 30 second news clip and 30 seconds of commentary by a news personality without any sort of attribution to the original source. It’s not plagiarism, but it’s a total failure to give credit where credit is due.

Which brings me to my latest example: Jeffrey Toobin’s piece in the New Yorker on Roger Stone. Now, Toobin’s piece was relatively good–an interesting take on an interesting character who has inserted himself into an interesting controversy (namely Eliot Spitzer’s disgrace). But I liked it more the first time when I read it in the Weekly Standard and it was written by Matt Labash.

I want to make it very clear: I am not accusing Toobin of plagiarism. Yes, he covered all of the same ground that Labash covered, and yes, it looks like he copied some of the stylistic quirks of Labash’s piece. Yes, he used several of the same anecdotes that Labash used, and sure, there was some duplication in the discussion of “Stone’s Rules” (right down to the duplication of individual rules cited). And sure, Stone had been relegated to the dustbin of history before Labash resuscitated his career and reputation, but I’m sure Toobin came up with the idea for this piece all on his own, right? No need to throw in a little nod to your inspiration, something along the lines of “Stone recently reemerged in an entertaining and well-written cover story by Matt Labash in The Weekly Standard.” Right?

Color me skeptical. But maybe I’m not giving Toobin enough credit. After all, if it hasn’t been written in the New Yorker, it hasn’t been written, now has it?

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