Friday, March 24, 2006

On plagiarism, getting caught and contrition


One of the main thoughts I recall from reading Gone With the Wind at the tender age of nine was Rhett informing Scarlett that her comments after she worried about going to hell for some dubious act were not contrite, but rather the concerns of someone who was upset not for their acts, but getting caught. This left a mark, and became my own way to measure regret. Was I sorry to commit an act, or simply a hypocrite, sorry to be discovered?

Reading Ben Domenech's half-realized "explanation" for what appear to be blatant acts of plagiarism both at the college and professional levels brought Rhett's voice to my ear.

You see, Ben states that it wasn't plagiarism; that famed writer P.J. O'Rourke gave him personal permission to recast the latter's own words into a sort of tribute college piece. Unfortunately, this isn't included in any online version of the essay. Which makes it. . .wait for it. . .still plagiarism. No attribution exists.

And it bears repeating until everyone fully understands: plagiarism of someone else's previously published work in the world of printed media is the worst offense a writer can commit. Even in high school, it brings serious trouble. In many colleges disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal, follows.

Domenech is neither contrite, nor willing to confess. Instead, he heaps scorn upon what he sees as a liberal plot to "get him" (nevermind his being hoist on his own petard) and calls the Washington Post editors idiots for not defending him.

This, even as the National Review Online posts an apology of their own: see, apparently one of Domenech's movie reviews was liberally cadged from a Cox News writer's previous review. To the point that NRO painted its own face with egg and expressed their collective regret for allowing Domenech to do this.

[Edit: In fact, since I first wrote this, NRO has returned with even more examples of Ben's blatant plagiarism they've found by combing old articles he wrote for their organization. Click the underlined text, above, to see their findings.]

Not completely done with the elementary school level of excuses, Ben then goes on to state that his editors at The Flat Hat, his William and Mary College alma mater's newspaper, added sentences to his copy, unbeknownst to him.

Even without this post at Atrios from one of his previous editors, may I politely call horsepucky?

As former editor-in-chief of only a small college weekly, it's an inconceivable allegation that editors would deliberately add any previously published text, let alone full plagiarized paragraphs, to any reporter's copy.

Editors punch-up, clarify, maybe even add a few original lines for clarification (but even that's a stretch). Usually they hand back the copy to its original author with requests for more info or clarity.

It's also laughable, the idea that any editor whose name is featured on the paper's masthead, who is responsible for every bit of copy and advertising in every issue, would put his/her reputation, future career and continued education on the line to do something so ridiculous. Not even for their own copy, let alone to fluff-up someone else's byline.

But the absolute dealbreaker on Domenech's fractured fairytale is this: in all these years of writing, I've never met any writer (myself included) that doesn't read their stories once they've hit the printed page. Equal parts vanity and review demand nothing less.

Yet Domenech not only wants people to believe his editors added previously published paragraphs and passed them off as his original work, but that he never read a single article he ever wrote and noticed these additions.

Slightly less likely than my winning the lottery tomorrow by not buying a ticket.

I will never understand why people confronted with facts cannot simply admit they're human, they made mistakes. It's part of having some character and decency - perhaps one of the most important parts.

Look Ben: if you're sorry you got caught, many people (including Rhett) will understand. But you're making things worse, not better. When caught red-handed, a simple apology would've been the elegant, decent thing to do. Leave with some shreds of your integrity left to stitch back together into tomorrow's whole cloth.
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