In every newsroom in every town and every city in America, plagiarism is a cardinal sin.
It’s a firing offense, and it usually means you’ll never work in the field again. Plagiarism, when detected in journalism, results not only in the loss of employment, but also ignominy and public apologies. Everyone in the press understands the severity of lifting others’ work without attribution.
Yet, from following the news coverage of ex-Harvard president Claudine Gay’s rise and fall, you would think that the corporate press had just been introduced to the concept of plagiarism.
Indeed, even with irrefutable evidence that Gay had built her entire career on the backs of her peers, a good number of reporters and editors have expressed both disinterest and indignation over the story, as if they are annoyed that it exists at all. Some are downplaying the academic dishonesty that caused Gay to resign, while others are questioning whether stealing other people’s work is so bad in the first place.
It’s not great that we live now in time where words that we in the press all agreed on just five minutes ago are suddenly up for redefinition or reconsideration for no other reason than personal partisan pieties.
In the days leading up to Gay’s resignation, certain members of the press even went as far as to pretend that they don’t already know plagiarism when they see it.
The New York Times, for example, initially shrugged at the story, citing Gay’s allies at Harvard who originally claimed that there was no there there. The paper’s first word on the matter was a story titled, “Harvard Clears Its President of ‘Research Misconduct’ After Plagiarism Charges.”
This story obviously did not age well following a more thorough investigation by Harvard and others. But ignore the more thorough investigation for a moment, and ask yourself this: Why did the New York Times take on faith the word of Gay’s subordinates at Harvard? Why not look at the actual evidence and decide for themselves, as various publications have done with so many other plagiarists? The evidence was there for review.
The New York Times knows exactly what plagiarism is, and under normal circumstances it takes the matter seriously. Its editorial standards specifically state that “Staff members who plagiarize…betray our fundamental pact with our readers. We will not tolerate such behavior.”
Academia takes a similar position. At Harvard, the student guidebook states that student plagiarists “will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including requirement to withdraw from the College.” So plagiarism is an offense worthy of expulsion, even for students paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education. And rightly so.
Harvard has a particularly broad definition of plagiarism, which states that even a properly attributed paraphrase of a source can be plagiarism if it is “too close to the original” in its wording.
All of this is to say: Harvard, the New York Times, and the media and academia more broadly know exactly what plagiarism is and should have had no trouble identifying it.
Why, then, were we greeted with these mealy-mouthed responses to Gay’s transgressions? Was it all too embarrassing?
Worse still are the media commentators who complain that Gay is guilty of nothing more than just a teeny, tiny bit of plagiarism. Let’s not get carried away, they say.
“Gay’s field, political science, is a data-driven discipline in which abstracts from one paper are not-infrequently copied as parts of a literature review in another,” argued Guardian columnist Moira Donegan, “and that the borrowed phrases and summaries that account for Gay’s ‘plagiarism’ are not crimes of theft but of sloppiness, with little bearing on the originality of her work.”
Tell that to Gay, who at least felt enough shame to request four corrections in mid-December. Tell it to Harvard, which announced an additional three corrections days later. Also, tell that to author Carol Swain, who alleges that Gay lifted her work practically note-for-note without any attribution.
At CNN, reporter Matt Egan went out of his way to avoid the core issue of Gay’s intellectual theft.
“Now, we should note that Claudine Gay has not been accused of stealing anyone’s ideas in any of her writings,” he said. “She’s been accused of, sort of, more like copying other people’s writings without attribution….So it’s been more sloppy attribution than stealing anyone’s ideas, but nonetheless, you put all that together and you throw on top the political pressure and also the pressure from donors.”
“Copying other people’s writings without attribution” — if only there were a word for that.
It is certainly disheartening to see members of the press downplay and pooh-pooh allegations of serial plagiarism. But worst of all are those arguing that Gay’s plagiarism is defensible or even secondary to the story because her critics are the “wrong” type of people — a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy. Sure, they concede, Gay’s critics have her dead to rights. She’s a plagiarist. But, ugh, her critics are conservatives! We cannot allow them a win!
At New York magazine, columnist Jonathan Chait argued conservative activist Chris Rufo, who first brought Gay’s plagiarism to light, is the real villain in all of this, not the woman whose career has been built on intellectual theft and lies.
“This is the kind of trap Rufo specializes in exploiting,” Chait groused. “He attacks targets with high ethical standards, which he himself doesn’t care about at all, forcing them to choose between maintaining their standards and resisting his nakedly political agenda.”
But Gay’s dilemma is precisely that she does not have “high ethical standards.” You can complain all you want that she was a target of conservative criticism, but that’s a bit like blaming the witness to a crime and not the criminal.
At MSNBC, New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay (no relation) argued that the reporters and activists who investigated Gay’s plagiarism are just “racist.”
“This is really an attack on academic freedom,” Gay said. “This is an attack on diversity. This is an attack on multiculturalism, and…I don’t have to say that they’re racist because you can hear and see the racism in the attacks”
It is certainly an interesting take to claim that plagiarism is “academic freedom.” Or that it is “racist” not to have a plagiarism carve-out for writers who happen to be Black. Or that racism somehow caused Claudine Gay to plagiarize several dozen times within her already-thin corpus of academic publications.
The Associated Press, meanwhile, invented a completely new standard to soften the story in Gay’s favor, reporting: “The plagiarism allegations came not from her academic peers but her political foes, led by conservatives who sought to oust Gay and put her career under intense scrutiny in hopes of finding a fatal flaw.”
It matters that the facts did not come first from Gay’s peers — the ones who at first reflexively abandoned their own institution’s plagiarism standards to whitewash her behavior? If this is the new standard now for reporting on factual opposition research, it could really spoil the excitement of the 2024 presidential election.
Dismissive, defiant, indignant — members of the corporate press have had several responses to the Gay plagiarism scandal. The responses differ by degrees, but the one thing tying them all together is a sense of resentment that they had to cover this story at all. The resentment is especially easy to see when one realizes that we are fighting over a concept that was uniformly agreed upon just a few weeks ago.
Were it not for the journalism of far smaller news organizations, organizations such as the AP likely would never have touched the story in the first place. And ignoring stories because you find them uncomfortable, or because they make you sad, is not really journalism, is it
Becket Adams is a writer in Washington and program director for the National Journalism Center.