Enough bogus plagiarism scandals! “True Detective,” Rick Perlstein and our obsession with intellectual theft

tags: Rick Perlstein, plagiarism, True Detective, intellectual theft

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

The past week saw two accusations of plagiarism leveled against celebrated works, Rick Perlstein’s new book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,”and the HBO series “True Detective,” created by Nic Pizzolatto. The week also marked the withdrawal from an election campaign of a U.S. senator, John Walsh, D-Mont., following New York Times revelations that he had plagiarized much of his final paper in a master’s degree program at the United States Army War College in 2007.

Plagiarism charges are, obviously, serious — serious enough to scuttle a political career or get a novel yanked from the marketplace (as happened to both “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” by Kaavya Viswanathan in 2006 and “Assassin of Secrets” by Q.R. Markham in 2011). Making such an accusation is a dramatic, attention-grabbing move, and it often seems to fill the sails of the accusers with the hot wind of righteous indignation. Comments threads fill up with thrillingly adamant remarks like “It’s wrong. Period. He should be fired immediately and his fields sown with salt” (or the professional equivalent thereof).

What none of this acknowledges is just how commonplace plagiarism charges are, how thin most of the evidence is and how poorly the average person understands the nature of the transgression. Perhaps you have to be a literary journalist or editor to realize that just beneath the surface of conventionally reported news simmers a vast sea of semi-formed resentments, grievances and paranoia about intellectual theft, each believed in wholeheartedly by a handful of crusaders (or maybe just one) yet failing to convince more objective reporters. We’re a plagiarism-obsessed society, partly because we know how much damage we can do to someone’s career and life by accusing them of it, but largely because so many of us don’t really grasp what plagiarism is.

Sen. Walsh’s case meets the simplest and most clear-cut definition of the offense. It happened in an academic context and all such institutions maintain explicit and official policies, detailing what constitutes plagiarism and what penalties will be levied against those who engage in it. Students (even students for advanced degrees) go to school to learn from people who know more than they do, to absorb and contemplate the work of those who have gone before them. For that reason, universities must take pains to draw the line between a well-informed and -sourced work and an unacceptably derivative one, and draw it as finely and as brightly as possible. Walsh copied many passages from many sources, word-for-word, without quotation marks or attribution, a clear violation of any university’s academic standards.

Newspapers and other journalistic institutions, particularly high-profile operations with a great deal invested in their reputation for authoritativeness, have their own, and different, regulations regarding the use of other writers’ work. When, two years ago, Fareed Zakaria, an author and pundit on politics and international affairs for Newsweek, CNN and Time, published a column on gun control in Time, he paraphrased a paragraph from a piece by New Yorker writer Jill Lepore that, in turn, summarized the work of a historian of the subject. The information in Lepore’s paragraph was organized and presented in the same way, but with slightly different wording, and Lepore’s article was not cited. Zakaria apologized, and was suspended by both Time and CNN. After a review of his previous commentary for them, both news organizations concluded that the incident was isolated (some outsiders have suggested that it was the work of a research assistant for the stretched-thin pundit), and reinstated him after six days...

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