February 12, 2019

Jill Abramson’s book “Merchants of Truth” is a provocative exploration of the current state of journalism, how we got here and what that implies for the future. As the former editor of the New York Times, her defense of her plagiarized passages is distracting from the conversation she wants to have. And it could well damage all of journalism.

By equivocating and suggesting there are different standards of attribution for a narrative book than for a reported piece of news content, Abramson gives the public ample reason to believe that all journalists employ a similar moral relevance that can be used to justify just about anything.

When she was the executive editor of the nation’s most influential newspaper, would she have accepted such a wishy-washy response? Abramson should admit that she inappropriately used the exact words of others, making only minor changes in what appears to be an attempt to smooth over the infraction.

I’ve helped editors at dozens of newsrooms examine issues of plagiarism. You can discern a writer’s intent by what happens to the copy after it’s imported. When writers make changes to the words, their intention seems to be to make the work appear to be their own. And that’s exactly what Abramson did in several passages. (You can see a handful of examples here.).

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If plagiarism had degrees, this would be a misdemeanor. There are not entire chapters or pages. This is not a wholesale theft of the work of another. Instead, we see roughly a half a dozen paragraphs that have appeared in other places, written by other writers. The result is a too-heavy reliance on the words that others crafted. Abramson certainly addressed similar cases when she was working at the Times, including this instance, originally reported in Slate and recently surfaced by Rolling Stone.

Abramson is not solely responsible. Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, is also accountable and should stand up with her and make things right. But Abramson, with her book, sought to make a point about the need for quality journalism. In that spirit, she needs to set that record straight.

In journalism ethics we often counsel news leaders that public perceptions of a problem can be more damaging than the problem itself. That is clearly the case with “Merchants of Truth.” Rather than calling it what it is, the public hears a prominent journalist sounding defensive and dismissive.

Abramson told NPR that she “fell short.” She told the Washington Post that “the passages in question involve facts that should have been perfectly cited in my footnotes and weren’t.”

She told Fox News that “I certainly didn’t plagiarize in my book. There are 70 pages of footnotes showing where I got the information.”

And she suggested to CNN’s Brian Stelter on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” that the effort to discredit her work was a distraction created by those she criticized.

“I was given a heads-up Vice was waging an oppo campaign,” Abramson tells Stelter, who used to work for her. Later she says, “I don’t think the book itself is a failure; the area of footnoting and giving credit is open to criticism.”

When Stelter asks, “Wouldn’t this meet the (New York) Times’ definition of plagiarism?” Abramson responds, “It would meet the Times’ definition of things that need to be promptly corrected. Sometimes a quote isn’t attributed correctly in the newspaper and that’s what happened here.”

But that’s not accurate. If quote marks had been merely left off, then the words that were imported from other sources would be exactly the same. And if her intention had been to paraphrase and then attribute, the words would have been substantially different.

Maybe an editor wouldn’t fire a reporter for a misdemeanor instance of plagiarism. But an editor certainly wouldn’t defend or dismiss the transgression. Abramson should call it plagiarism and pledge to fix the copy in digital versions and future printed versions.

Then she should apologize.


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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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