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.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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