Jill Abramson Is a Hack, Not a Plagiarist

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, gives the commencement address at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., May 19, 2014. (Jason Miczek/REUTERS)
Her book scolding other journalists shows signs of hasty composition, but not of plagiarism.

In the journalism world, “plagiarism” is the nuclear strike. You learn to duck a lot of incoming from a lot of different directions when you write about contested matters for public scrutiny, but being labeled a plagiarist turns your career to arid rubble. A reputation is there one moment, gone the next. Even if you happen to have made it to the very top of the journalism mountain — the editorship of the New York Times — an act of plagiarism can quickly lift that mountain and place it rudely atop your head.

But plagiarism is simply a fancy word for theft, and as with all other kinds of theft, the value of what is being stolen matters. Pocketing a pack of gum while the store clerk’s back is turned is not the same as stealing a Ferrari.

Jill Abramson is a gum thief, not a Ferrari thief. What she did is not that bad. The stuff she stole had such little value that it’s possible the people she robbed might never have noticed if it hadn’t been for a reporter who looked into her book to see whether its assertions about his employer were accurate.

Michael Moynihan of Vice has posted a series of tweets demonstrating that in her book Merchants of Truth, Abramson (or whoever writes under her name) took a number of shortcuts, cutting and pasting passages from other writers. She made minor changes, if any, to disguise the theft. Some of her research was credited in the book’s 70 pages of endnotes, but not all of it. In any case, such notes are supposed to indicate sources of information, not to excuse direct quotation. (Moynihan also says Abramson’s book contains “enormous factual errors,” but I want to focus on the plagiarism angle.)

An example of what Moynihan came up with: Abramson lifted a paragraph from the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

The original reads:

McInnes wrote a column in The American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan. In the magazine, he called young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his cronies use often) who’ll believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with light skin. He laments the liberal views of most of the people who pick up his magazine, saying they’re “brainwashed by communist propaganda.”

Abramson made very slight changes. Her book:

He wrote a column in The American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan, calling young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his ilk often used) who would believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with light skin. He lamented the liberal views of his magazine’s readers, saying they’re “brainwashed by communist propaganda.”

So the passage isn’t exactly the same, but it’s clear where Abramson got the material. Abramson didn’t steal anyone’s creativity, their pellucid insights or poetic turns of phrase. What she repeated is very small bits of workmanlike prose: “wrote a column in The American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan” is a passage anyone could use or hear without wondering who was the first to come up with that turn of phrase. If Abramson had simply taken two minutes to rewrite a bit more, she would have been in line with common practice.

Most of the passages Moynihan flags are similar to the above. They show material Abramson lightly rewrote (it’s a judgment call, but if the changes are significant the lines are not plagiarism), together with a few direct lifts, all of which are brief and boilerplate, such as “The result was the 2008 documentary Christmas in Darfur” or “Daily Mail rose to fourth from seventh.” He concedes that he examined only three chapters of the book, and now that the p-game is afoot, it may be that there are worse revelations to come.

But based on this initial batch of questionable passages, I doubt a judge would rule any of this is serious enough to constitute plagiarism. That’s probably a moot point anyway, since it’s highly unlikely Abramson is going to be taken to court over any of it in the first place. The question before us is really whether Abramson has committed a morally unforgivable transgression. I’d say what she is guilty of is being sloppy and lazy, of resorting to off-the-shelf phrases and relying on cutting and pasting instead of doing all of the writing herself. Coming as it does between the covers of a book that is centrally a scolding of other journalists for not upholding standards, all of this is pretty funny, and if (as has been reported) Abramson was paid $1 million for Merchants of Truth, her publishers at Simon & Schuster should demand a refund. But what Abramson is guilty of is being a hack, not a plagiarist.

Editor’s NoteThis piece has been updated since its initial posting.

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