College Media Teachable Moment: Maureen Dowd’s “Plagiarism”

Liberals are cringing and conservatives gallivanting with glee at the plagiarism charge being levied against New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.  She has admitted that a paragraph-long sentence in her most recent column matches a sentence penned by a prominent Huffington Post blogger almost exactly.

She claims the mix-up came from a friend spouting the blog’s sentence to her without attributing it to the HuffPo blog.  Hmmmmm.  (I do NOT buy that excuse AT ALL.  She wants us to believe that in social conversation a friend recited a line to her memorized word-for-word from a blog, without mentioning it was from the blog, and then Dowd remembered that line basically word-for-word when writing her column later.  My dog ate my homework.)

The CMM Teachable Moment is not related to Dowd’s alleged miscue (the lesson there of course is obvious- don’t cheat!) but to an Editor & Publisher write-up on the incident.   The E&P piece, headlined in part “Maureen Dowd in Hot Water,” is well-written and objective overall.  Yet, it uses quote marks erroneously or at least in bad judgment around the word plagiarism in describing Dowd’s alleged action.

Here’s the short graf: “But by mid-afternoon she was on the hot seat for using a paragraph almost word-for-word from one of the most prominent liberal bloggers, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, without attribution.  Charges of “plagiarism” ensued.”

Quote marks are powerful tools, at times expressing as much meaning as the words and phrases they surround.  In this case, the E&P article errs by making the plagiarism charges seem less real, serious or worthy of our consideration.  Make no mistake: Dowd’s misdeed is alleged plagiarism, unintentional or not.  Wikipedia lists a Random House dictionary definition calling it the “use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”

It’s all about context.  No reporter would ever put quotes around the charges in this scenario: Mary’s body was found Sunday morning in a ditch and John’s bloodied weapon was nearby.  Charges of “murder” ensued.  Or: Pictures of John naked with another woman were released Sunday, much to the dismay of his wife.  Charges of “cheating” ensued.

The quote marks in both those cases, and in this Dowd case, make it sound like the accusers are making something up or striving to make a scurrilous charge stick.  Just like no one is yet calling our boy John a murderer or cheater in the above scenarios, no one is calling Dowd a plagiarist (yet).  She is being CHARGED with it or ACCUSED of it.  The act of which she is being accused, plagiarism, should stand on its own, without the “quotes.”

Let that be a lesson to you. :)

2 Responses to “College Media Teachable Moment: Maureen Dowd’s “Plagiarism””
  1. Rachael says:

    Though I agree that the quotation marks around plagiarism were perhaps ill-advised, I can understand the temptation to do so.
    After one of my student staff members was accused of plagiarism, her career and self-confidence was completely torn apart. The pack of howling comment wolves descended on our website, tearng apart story after story looking for examples of plagiarism where none existed. I myself was accused of plagiarism due to a similarity in first names.
    Accusations of plagiarism are serious, but I don’t necessarily think a journalist should automatically be crucified for one sentence or paragraph similarly stated to someone else. I’ve seen professional journalists restate press releases and put their bylines on it- in some ways, part of me doesn’t understand how this is any different from that, an action that wasn’t criticized at all.

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