Why Jonathan Alter, Joe Conason columns were virtually identical

The Wall Street Journal
James Taranto noticed that a Joe Conason column published yesterday in Real Clear Politics was “very nearly identical” to a Jonathan Alter column published April 19 in Bloomberg.

If you read the two columns, you will find that they are very nearly identical, with only very minor stylistic changes: Alter refers to “Nixon,” Conason to “Richard Nixon”; Alter to “al-Qaeda” and Conason to “al-Qaida”; Alter has a comma before “anyway,” which Conason omits. Both carry the same headline, “Barney Frank Makes a Misdiagnosis on Obamacare.”

Taranto allows that this is likely a technical screw-up: “This seems too brazen to be a deliberate act of plagiarism, so we’d say the most likely explanation is carelessness: Conason, perhaps distracted by a squirrel, clicked on the wrong file as he was sending his column over to his editor at the syndicate, who then made the stylistic changes before distributing it.”

That — well, not the squirrel part — was not a horrible guess. Reached by email, Conason says he’s not aware of any attempt by Taranto to contact him, Alter or Creators syndicate before writing the piece but says his editor, Anthony Zurcher, contacted Taranto after he published his post to say the error was his: He’d mistakenly grabbed the Alter column from The National Memo, which Conason edits.

“Taranto (and his editors) entered the realm of self-satire by posting an item that questions my ethics and attention to detail, without bothering to contact me or anyone else to learn the basic facts,” Conason writes. “It would be funny if it weren’t such a pain in the ass.”

And the squirrel reference? “Taranto types a lot of precious, obscure little insults in imitation of wit. You’ll have to ask him what’s on his mind.”

Conason’s column is now headed by an editor’s note saying Creators Syndicate, which distributes his columns, “mistakenly sent through the wrong text for Joe Conason’s column.” I’ve asked Taranto if he contacted Alter or Conason before publishing and also requested some clarity on the squirrel thing.

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  • Celtic Tiger

    Dear F. Douglas,
    My initial comment was a statement of opinion about Taranto: one opinion to another. One can consider Taranto witty or not, a shill or a great writer of deep insights. No matter. The “name calling” as you put it was initiated by Mr. Blair. I responded to his namecalling/adhominem with another observation. You can look it up and trace the “facts.” 

  • F. Douglas

     So what really is wrong in what Taranto — or Erick for that matter — said? Taranto discovered the mistake with the columns, and noted that it most likely wasn’t plagiarism. He also had a little fun with his writing. Rather than taking issue with the facts, your comments simply indulge in name calling directed at Taranto and Erick. That’s so typical.

  • Anonymous

    1. I’m interested to know which article that Mr. Conason DID write is the one erroneously displaced by the Alter article.

    2. If Mr. Zurcher mistakenly “grabbed the article”, how are the minor differences explained? Who, after Mr. Conason’s editor (Mr. Zurcher) has the authority to edit Mr. Conason’s columns?

    3. I’m interested to know the whole process by whicy Mr. Zurcher made the mistake. Presumably, Mr. Conason penned an article which he sent to Mr. Zurcher. Presumably, that was in some word-processing format (like Microsoft Word). Presumably, this was emailed, whatever format it was in. Presumably, the column in The National Memo, since it was already at another website, was in web format (like HTML or even just a link; in the least, the text would have needed to be selecte and copied). Presumably, Mr. Zurcher then emailed to whoever is charged with posting the column.
    a. How does Mr. Zurcher explain dealing with two formats in the process of making his mistake?
    b. Dealing with the two formats necessarily involves dealing with a minimum of two programs, perhaps three. How does Mr. Zurcher explain the need to switch between programs to execute the mistake?

  • ||||| Alaska Jack

     1. “… he’s a PLAGIARIST…”

    Taranto specifically said he *didn’t think it was plagiarism.

    2. “…if I don’t print that …”

    He did print it. It’s in today’s column.

    If you would like to post anything that is actually correct, feel free. In the meantime, you might consider growing up a little.

    lllll Alaska Jack

  • Celtic Tiger

    This “kitten” can’t be insulted by a lapdog.

  • jasoncravatt

    Oh, man, we got the flaming pinko jerk Conason now, har har, he’s a PLAGIARIST, he’ll never recover from this one–those lefties are too righteous to let him off. (Our side wouldn’t give up on a God-fearing patriot like Ben Domenech just because of a few hundred thousand words he borrowed from other writers.) Conason’s finished, he’s toast, stick a fork in him… What? The syndicate is taking responsibility? Well… if I don’t print that, my readers will never know. It’s not like they get their facts from anyone else. It might not be the literal truth that he’s a plagiarist, but in my heart I know he is.   

  • Celtic Tiger

    Rightwing trolls in Poynter? Or perhaps a WSJ  Murdoch PR flack? Well, guess that’s what having a free press means.  Whatever. And us kittens aren’t insulted, Erick.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_73LZHGYICWUEJ5AK5K5QVUYB34 George

    Guys lighten up.  Taranto noted that this was in all likelihood an honest mistake and had some fun with it.  The squirrel reference was to a running gag about people being distracted by squirrels.  He is an opinion writer, but a thoughtful and entertaining one.  If I were a leftist Taranto is where I’d go to learn the other side’s best arguments.  Unless being a leftist left me too close-minded for any such adventure…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Erick-Blair/1851126585 Erick Blair

    Taranto is an opinion writer.  It says so right at the top of his column and he’s proud of it.  Obviously reading is hard for you but here’s a thought.  Maybe you should change your nick to “Celtic Kitten”.  Though that might be insulting to kittens. 

  • Celtic Tiger

    I read the Taranto column and the predictable comments. To call Taranto a “journalist” is like calling Glenn Beck an intellectual.