July 19, 2016

If I harvested all the essays I’ve written about plagiarism since the 1980s, there would be enough of them to make a fairly boring and incoherent book. But of all the cases I’ve read about or adjudicated — in a literary sense — none feels more perplexing to me than the case of Melania Trump.

I did not hear her speech live — I drank one beer and fell asleep in my recliner — but I awoke to hear this: That significant passages in her speech (lovely ones, I think) were kidnapped, almost word for word, from (get this!) the convention speech delivered at the 2008 Democratic Convention by (no, you don’t have to wait for it, because you already know) Michelle Obama, the then-future First Lady of these United States of America.

Is it original? An editor’s guide to identifying plagiarism

I have in my head a screenplay about a rogue running for president — who doesn’t — and something like Melania Trump’s moment would make a delicious scene. But who would believe it? If the borrowed passages in her speech had come from, say, Margaret Thatcher, the controversy would only rate a one on the Raised Eyebrow scale.

That the passages would be borrowed from the wife of your husband’s political enemy, a president your spouse does not believe is actually an American citizen, rates two Raised Eyebrows and a Dropped Jaw.

In the “paranoid style” (please see historian Richard Hofstadter) that marks Trump’s America, anything is imaginable, but I’ve boiled down the possibilities of what happened to these three:

  1. Melania Trump plagiarized those parts of the speech herself, having watched previous speeches by future First Ladies. To give her the benefit of the doubt, let’s stipulate that speechwriters crib lots of stuff from lots of sources, and that there is no common architecture (such as footnotes) for attribution in a homily, lecture, or convention speech.
  2. In front of a worldwide audience, Melania Trump read beautiful passages that were snatched by her speechwriters. If this is true, please say it with me, “What were they thinking?” If this is what happened, some speechwriter deserves not just firing, but banishment from the craft. Someone call Ghost-writer Busters.
  3. My colleague Kelly McBride, also an expert on plagiarism, offers the possibility that this act of bad borrowing is just the product of a Trump campaign that just does not care about traditional standards and practices of literary and political life. If facts don’t matter, then why should plagiarism?

If I had to vote on these choices, mine would be No. 2 and No. 3. That is, a speechwriter stole those passages for Melania Trump and didn’t care that it was stealing.

Years ago, our current vice president, Joe Biden, was caught plagiarizing a speech, a sin he shares with many other politicans. Hillary Clinton may have bent the truth and obfuscated to her political advantage, but there is no equivalency here. The school of Trump (based upon the scrupulous work of professional fact-checkers) exists and thrives in a post-fact — and now post-plagiarism — world. Concern for irresponsible borrowing of texts has somehow become a problem for the elites: intellectuals and the so-called mainstream media.

My inclination is to take Melania Trump off the hook, but not without coining a new word:

“Melaniate”: To unwittingly speak in a public forum words that have been plagiarized by others.

This case offers some big questions for journalists, who will continue to cover countless speeches by hordes of politicians, local and national, over the next four months:

  1. As we place more and more emphasis on the factuality of political speech, must we now concern ourselves with its originality?
  2. In a culture where there are so many unknown or unattributed sources for a politician’s speech — and even his or her writing — how much transparency should we expect or demand?
  3. Should the standards of attribution and originality be the same for political speech and written texts, or should they be different?
  4. With the existence of “talking points,” “stump-speech” rhetoric, repeated over and over, and endless sloganeering, how much value should the public and journalists place in issues such as originality and authenticity?
  5. If all of this seems a bit pointy-headed (or Poynty-headed), consider this: Yes, on a list that includes global warming, terrorism, immigration, and the threat of nuclear war, plagiarism appears way down the list.

That said, I and many of my journalism colleagues stand with George Orwell, who argued so powerfully at the end of World War II that political corruption leads to language corruption — which leads to more political corruption.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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