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Famous Journalist Writes Book, Gets Accused of Plagiarism

February 11, 2019

I didn’t create this cartoon, and I probably haven’t cited it correctly. (image via wikimedia

Jills Abramson, author of the recently published Merchant of Truth, might not be considered a famous journalist.  I had heard of her (because I read a lot from various news outlets), but I don’t know what she looks like.

I think facial recognition is a part of fame.  You’re not really famous if people don’t know what you look like.  That’s why I wouldn’t mind being a famous writer because I could still go anywhere and no strangers would want to talk to me (or try to fight me).

Anyway, Jill Abramson’s book Merchant of Truth was about how has journalism changed over the decades because of the internet and social media.  Because of the internet (this is me talking, not Jill Abramson), it’s easier to do research and plagiarize.  The down side is that it’s also easier to catch the plagiarism.

I’m not going to examine the questionable passages in Merchant of Truth because others have already done that (here and  here ).  People seem to disagree about what reaches the standards of plagiarism.  Some say it’s the exact usage of the same words.  Some say it’s a paraphrase of the same information without giving credit.  And there’s even disagreement about what makes common knowledge so that an author doesn’t even need to give credit.

I’m always surprised when famous authors get caught plagiarizing.  Publishing companies have a bunch of editors who (I think) have access to the internet.  It would be easier to check a book before publication than it is to apologize later and fix mistakes later.  Or maybe I’m wrong.  There’s a lot about publishing that I don’t know.

Supposedly, publishing companies trust the author.  Ha ha!  If publishing companies haven’t learned from authors who have lied and plagiarized in the past, then that’s on the publishing company.  I’ve heard the phrase “Trust, but verify.”  I don’t care if there’s trust or not.  If there’s a ton of money involved, then I’d verify.

Despite her initial denial, Abramson now agrees that she got sloppy with citations in her book.  That’s the problem with journalists today.  If they’re not rushing out inaccurate (or false) stories, they’re still sloppy too often.  Competing with so many other news sources makes journalists sloppy.  Trying to be funny or snarky on social media makes journalists even more careless.

A couple decades ago, Abramson’s plagiarism (or whatever it is) would have been more difficult to catch.  And when it was noticed, there would have been no way to tell everybody.  News was controlled by a few newspapers and television stations, and if they didn’t want you to know a story, they squashed it and called the alternative news sources crazy.

Abramson has been writing/editing for a long time (I’m not making fun of her age) and was a journalist before social media and so many competing news sources existed; she should have known that any mistake she made would be met with glee from bloggers and other online sources who are competing with her.  When you’re a journalist writing a book about journalism, you need to do your citations correctly.

This book Merchants of Truth leads me to trust journalists even less than I did before.  Readers might not trust me either, but I don’t self-righteously proclaim how important I am.  I’m just a blogger who reads a lot and posts links.  Like Abramson, I’m probably sloppy with my citations (if I make any).

Journalism has gotten so sloppy (It’s not all Jill Abramson’s fault) that I don’t even trust the history books anymore.  If journalists can’t get the story right (sometimes when the video of the whole thing is right there), how can historians get it right?  I don’t want to go full Illuminati, but the implications are huge.

As an aspiring indie author, I see a little spiteful humor in this (I’m sorry!).   Some traditional publishing companies look down on independent authors (and I can understand why).  Indie authors can be careless and make a bunch of inexcusable mistakes.  Just like Jill Abramson.

So the next time I make a bunch of grammar mistakes on my blog, or I publish an ebook with a word missing on the cover, I can say, “Eh, at least I’m not Jill Abramson.”

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