The Real Problem With MoDo

by Brien Jackson

To start out on a fair note, I do not think that Maureen Dowd intentionally plagiarized Josh Marshall, if for no other reason than that TPM is not an obscure website. Josh Marshall has won a Polk Award for his work at TPM, writers at TPM are professional journalists, and the site has become a major news source that lots and lots of people read. I just don’t believe that anyone would think they could get away with so blatantly stealing material from the site. I tend to think Brad Delong is probably on the right track here:

You want my guess as to what happened with Maureen Dowd? Last Friday night Maureen Dowd was running out of steam on her column. So she went and grabbed a paragraph from Josh Marshall: this one:

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq…

She pasted it at the bottom of her unfinished draft. She began editing it to make it her own “writing”. She replaced “we were” with “the Bush crowd,” producing:

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq…

Then something called her away. Later she came back to the column. But she had forgotten that she had not yet made enough changes to make it her own “writing.” So she double-spaced. She typed out a final paragraph. And she sent the column off.

That’s pretty plausible, and pretty reasonable, but I’m still pretty burnt up about the thing anyway, for a couple of reasons. First of all, MoDo isn’t copping to it. Her explanation both brings the required derision of bloggers (“who, me? No, I don’t read blogs. I just have friends who do behind my back.), and is just very implausible. Even if you give it the most charitable reading plausible, she’d still be guilty of shamelessly passing off her friend’s thoughts as her own.

But more than that, it’s really annoying that this comes all of one day after The Washington Post published another Op-Ed complaining about how Teh Google And Teh Bloggerz are unfairly using their content. Aside from the fact that the column made little sense on its own merits, what it didn’t feel like mentioning was exactly what MoDo just laid bare; these elite outlets lift people’s material all of the time. They lift from bloggers, less known journalistic entities, and even from each other. You change the words a bit, maybe add a smidgeon of new material, then pass it off without credit or citation, as though it were your own, original work. And, for the most part, that’s perfectly fine. That’s how the industry works. The blogosphere isn’t that much different, aside from the fact that the ability to link makes it much easier to credit other people for their work. But still, arguments are lifted all the time, and in perfectly good faith. There’s only so many ways to make the same point after all.

But in the bizarro-world of elite journalism, taking a story, changing the wording, and reprinting it as if it were your own is standard operating procedure, but excerpting someone’s story on line, citing your source, and linking back to the original work is stealing. That’s the real problem here.

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