Not long ago I was getting a shiatsu massage in my office when my assistant came in to tell me that he'd gathered the data on government spending that I'd asked for, and written it up in text form so I could drop it into my next column. When I read what he'd written, it looked suspiciously like turgid think-tank prose, so I asked him whether these were his own words or those of the source from which he got the data. When he began his response with "Um..." I knew he had failed me, so I flung my double espresso in his face, an act of discipline I thought rather restrained. Over the sound of his whimpering and the scent of burning flesh, I explained to him that real journalists don't pass off the work of others as their own. As part of his penance, I forced him to write my columns for me in their entirety for the next three weeks. The scars are healing nicely, and with my benevolent guidance he is well on his way to becoming the journalist I know he can be.
OK, that didn't actually happen. I don't have an assistant. I suppose if I resided at a higher tier of the Washington opinion journalism hierarchy, I would. Like Juan Williams, who finds himself in a spot of trouble today. As Alex Seitz-Wald of Salon reports, parts of a column Williams recently wrote for The Hill were lifted almost word-for-word from a Center for American Progress report on immigration:
In a phone interview Thursday evening, Williams pinned the blame on a researcher who he described as a "young man."
"I was writing a column about the immigration debate and had my researcher look around to see what data existed to pump up this argument and he sent back what I thought were his words and summaries of the data," Williams told Salon. "I had never seen the CAP report myself, so I didn't know that the young man had in fact not summarized the data but had taken some of the language from the CAP report."
Hugo Gurdon, the editor in chief of The Hill, told Salon on Thursday evening that: "CAP drew the similarities between Juan's column and their report to my attention and I spoke to Juan about it. He went back and looked at the two and spoke to me having had a look and acknowledged there were unacceptable similarities.
"And he gave me an explanation, which I found satisfactory. And I believe there was an honest mistake and it related to the transfer of copy and the use of a researcher and it was completely inadvertent. He was very concerned to set the record straight."
To dispense with the question of Williams' guilt, his story sounds perfectly plausible. It would be ridiculous for someone like Williams to say, "I'll just take this bunch of text from this report and change a couple of words here and there, and no one will notice." There have been cases of plagiarism before where a writer blamed it on copying over text from a source into their notes, then forgetting that the text was not their own words. I find this perfectly plausible too, particularly if you're working on a book and you have hundreds of pages of notes that combine your own writing and what you've gotten from elsewhere. That's not to excuse it, just to say it can be an understandable mistake and not an act with sinister intent.
But here's what I can fault Williams for: What he actually got caught doing was an act of double plagiarism, even though only one of the acts of plagiarism is considered problematic. After all, plagiarism is taking someone else's words and passing them off as your own without attribution. Williams does that whenever his assistant writes something for him that then appears verbatim in his column, which from his explanation sounds like something he does regularly. It's just that this time, his assistant passed off CAP's words as his own to Williams, and Williams then passed off CAP's words as his own to his readers, when he thought he was only passing off his assistant's words as his own, which otherwise nobody would know about.
I suppose that many of the biggest of big-time columnists have research assistants, though I'm not really sure. After all, someone needs to look up obscure quotes from the Federalist Papers for George Will (and imagine if there's actually an intern transcribing the insights of Bangalore cab drivers on Tom Friedman's behalf). If I'm ever offered a New York Times column and become fabulously well-paid for doing basically the same thing I do now, but I also have to fit in the writing between appearances on Meet the Press and lucrative speeches to the likes of the National Grommet Council, maybe then I'll hire a research assistant. There's nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with having an assistant who doesn't just do research for you but actually writes prose that you then present as your own, even if it's only a paragraph here and there. When you're a writer and articles go out under your byline, your readers believe that the words are yours. If one week your assistant wrote half your column, then he should get credit for it, not only because he deserves it, but because otherwise, you're deceiving your readers. Just a line at the bottom saying "This column was prepared with the assistance of Jimmy Olsen" could be enough. If you can't manage to write your own words, then you should get into another line of work.