Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Shadow Of A Dowd

with a good old-fashioned brouhaha: plagiarism allegations against Maureen Dowd. Her Sunday New York Times column contained a key paragraph that happened to have originated in another writer's piece -- and now the Internet version of a wet dream is in full spasm.

Perhaps equally alarming as the original charge of plagiarizing was the strangely nonchalant dog-ate-my-notes excuse Dowd offered Monday by way of an explanation. Let's just say that after her weak defense, journalism schools won't be teaching Dowd's Frankenstein approach to assembling her columns -- unless it's an introductory course in How Not To -- despite her Pulitzer pedigree.

Coincidentally, just a few scant posts ago I was offering something close to unvarnished praise for Dowd's recent work, which in retrospect looks like yet another Warden's World jinx:
...On the positive side of the street, Maureen Dowd has written one good column after another for a long stretch now. Moving away from Hillary Clinton as a subject has freed her from overdoing the oversimplified gender politics which she delighted reveling in during the long and bitter Clinton-Obama campaign. Sometimes she reverts to bad form, as in a recent overwrought Michelle Obama piece, but Dowd's twice-weekly column is once again a safe place to turn for an incisive if sometimes catty take on the culture of national politics...
Well, it was part of an April Fool's Day post...

Glenn Greenwald used the Dowd kerfuffle Monday to remind everyone that this kind of "exchange" goes on all the time, despite the one-sided portrayal of bloggers as parasites cannibalizing established mainstream news sources. In The myth of the parasitical bloggers, Greenwald documents how a writer from The Economist recently nipped large parts of his recent post on the prison-industrial complex. Dowd's wholesale swipe of Josh Marshall's paragraph is only the latest, most concrete case of a more widespread practice:
Often, the parasitical feeding happens in the opposite direction, though while bloggers routinely credit (and link to) the source of the material on which they're commenting, there is an unwritten code among many establishment journalists that while they credit each other's work, they're free to claim as their own whatever they find online without any need for credit or attribution (see here for a typical example of how many of these news organizations operate in this regard).
Typically, the uncredited use of online commentary doesn't rise to the level of blatant copying -- plagiarism -- that Maureen Dowd engaged in. It's often not even an ethical breach at all. Instead, traditional media outlets simply take stories, ideas and research they find online and pass it off as their own. In other words -- to use their phraseology -- they act parasitically on blogs by taking content and exploiting it for their benefit.
Ironically, I really liked Dowd's column last Sunday and had bookmarked it with the intention of mentioning of it in Monday's Give 'Em Enough Rope, but then decided my post would be too Times-heavy after quoting Frank Rich so extensively.

Also smacking of irony, or maybe its lesser-cited cousin mere happenstance, Greenwald commended Dowd's column in his own Sunday post (Distorting public opinion on torture investigations) -- quoting the exact section I had planned to highlight -- calling her piece "uncharacteristically cogent and substantive." I too found myself in agreement with her unequivocal call for a truth commission that would get to the bottom of the Bush administration's willful disregard of the Geneva Convention and its flaunting of international law in the wake of the Nancy Pelosi-CIA standoff:
I used to agree with President Obama, that it was better to keep moving and focus on our myriad problems than wallow in the darkness of the past. But now I want a full accounting. I want to know every awful act committed in the name of self-defense and patriotism. Even if it only makes one ambitious congresswoman pay more attention in some future briefing about some future secret technique that is “uniquely” designed to protect us, it will be worth it.
But it was the section directly proceeding the above closing one -- the penultimate paragraph of her Sunday column -- that got MoDo into HoWa (hot water). Here's (1) the original Josh Marshall reference from the Talking Points Memo of 5/14; (2) the paragraph in Dowd's Cheney, Master of Pain from the 5/17 op-ed page; (3) what it looks like now on the Times website; and finally (4) Dowd's Monday email to Huffington Post explaining how the offending graph slipped in without due attribution:

"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."

"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 the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq."

Josh Marshall said in his blog: “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.”

josh is right. I didn't read his blog last week, and didn't have any idea he had made that point until you informed me just now. i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent -- and I assumed spontaneous -- way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column. but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me. we're fixing it on the web, to give josh credit, and will include a note, as well as a formal correction tomorrow.

Given how they've backed themselves into a corner with that explanation, you can appreciate how Dowd -- at the Times since 1983 and an op-ed columnist since '95 -- and Executive Editor Bill Keller now have to stay away from the third rail of journalism, the dreaded P word. Sure, the Dowd imbroglio is unlikely to blacken her name and reputation as emphatically as Jayson Blair or Judith Miller -- but it's potentially scandalous nonetheless.

Yesterday, a U.S. News & World Report
writer seemed willing to give his colleague the benefit of the Dowd; despite not wholly endorsing her version of how the mistake occurred, John Aloysius Farrell wants everybody to move along, nothing to see here. Strange...

This isn't the first time Dowd's methodology has been called into question. During the 2008 primary season, she filed a piece from out of the country that made it seem she was reporting from Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire campaign headquarters. Perhaps it's now fair game to raise the specter that "friends" may have had a ghostly hand in previous columns.

I'm running out of synonyms for irony, but consider that it was Maureen Dowd who caught Joe Biden plagiarizing part of another pol's speech in a 1987 column -- a textbook case of What Goes Around Comes Around:
But Mr. Biden's borrowing raises questions about how much a candidate can adapt someone else's language and thoughts, whether he remembers to give credit or not.
On Jeopardy Monday, an entire category was devoted to New York Times columnists, using video clues where each writer awkwardly looked into the camera and said things like, "I wrote back in 2003 that the Bush administration should close this place where thousands of prisoners have been held without charges." These cameos were cringe-inducing moments of the highest order. I believe Richard Cohen mouthed the above words, and then Gail Collins, Nick Kristof, Charles Blow and Frank Rich took their turns.

What made it even worse was Alex pompously stopping the proceedings when the category ended to offer his solemn gratitude to the important columnists who took precious time out of their day to participate. It came off as overly deferential, even reverential, and therefore pompous to the nth degree. The Times management never imagined these Jeopardy appearances would be overshadowed so soon by another charge of wrong-doing by arguably its best-known personality.

Perhaps MoDo had better things to do than literally become the answer to a trivia question. But I was surprised she passed on an opportunity for self-promotion, because Dowd's obviously no shrinking violet. I once saw her promoting a book on Letterman and, while not quite at ease in front of the camera, she seemed to relish the attention. So I remember being surprised that she wasn't featured on the Jeopardy slot, but it makes sense now: she was probably busy stripping the blogosphere of parts for her next column.

1 comment:

Dan Mage said...

Quite odd...she's kinda hot though, nice photo.