Dude, You Stole My Article
How I investigated a suspicious alt weekly.
Editor's Note: The Bulletin's Web site appears to have been taken down since this article was posted. All links to Bulletin content in this article now lead to screen grabs captured by Slate when the Bulletin site was still live.
Since 2005, the Bulletin has published dozens of stories under Williams' byline that appear to be copied, whole or in part, from other periodicals. Compare the Bulletin's Nov. 4, 2005, Franz Ferdinand piece and this NMEreview, published five weeks prior; the Bulletin's Steely Dan piece (July 14, 2006) and this article from the Web site All About Jazz (July 4, 2006); the Bulletin's Black Rebel Motorcycle Club feature (June 14, 2007) and an earlier Boston Globe piece(May 25, 2007); the Bulletin's McKay Brothers article (Nov. 11, 2006) and this Dallas Observer item(Oct. 19, 2006); and the Bulletin's "God and Country: More Popular Artists Are Now Singing a Spiritual Tune" (Sept. 20, 2007) and the Billie Joe Shaver concert review by Washington Post pop critic J. Freedom du Lac (Sept. 13, 2007). The Eagles piece published in the Bulletin on Dec. 13, 2007 is a nearly word-for-word recapitulation of David Fricke's Rolling Stone review (Nov. 1, 2007). Mark Williams sought inspiration from USA Today for his features on Paul Simon ( USA Today version; Bulletin version) and Tom Petty (USA Today version; Bulletin version). The Evanston, Ill.-based blog Pop Matters is the apparent source of articles on Dwight Yoakam (Pop Matters version; Bulletin version) and Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs (Pop Matters version; Bulletin version). And then there's "Crazy About 'Crazy' " (March 2, 2007), Williams' deconstruction of the monster 2006 pop hit by Gnarls Barkley—an article that bears a striking resemblance to "Crazy for 'Crazy'," published six months earlier in Slate.
And so on. Uncovering these sources is a matter of choosing the right phrases to dump into Google, not a difficult feat for anyone moderately attuned to writerly rhythms. Often, the keywords leap right out at you. The Willie Nelson appreciation currently headlining the Bulletin's Web site begins: "Willie Nelson is so impeccably grizzled that he has moved into a realm to which the phrase 'elder statesman' scarcely begins to do justice"—a sentence with a twang more British than Texan, probably because it was first published in the U.K. Guardian.
Shortly after realizing I might not have been Williams' only plagiarism victim, I called Mike Ladyman a second time. Ladyman speaks in a soothing singsong tone and has a genial telephone manner. But he seemed eager to cut short our conversation and uninterested in the details of my allegations. I pressed the point: "I think there's a serious pattern of plagiarism here. You should really look into this." Ladyman's reply was vague: "Well, I've already mentioned it to Mark. So that's under way. E-mail me the articles and I'll take a look." And then we hung up.
Whereupon I returned to surfing the Bulletin site, digging deeper into the newspaper's archives—and turning up dozens more suspect articles. Like many alt weeklies, the paper's bread-and-butter is politics, and from the spring of 2005 on, its political op-eds comprise an apparently unbroken sequence of pilfered prose. The Bulletin's archives reveal a strong preference for the online magazine Salon—in particular, the punditry of Joe Conason and Sidney Blumenthal. Compiling a complete annotated list of articles would require the services of a half-dozen unpaid interns, so a few examples will have to suffice. Compare:
- Conason's "The Only Way Out," Salon, Dec. 3, 2005, and the Bulletin's "We Can Work It Out," Dec. 9, 2005
- Conason's "Alberto Gonzales' Coup D'Etat," Salon, Feb. 9, 2007, and the Bulletin's "Let's Just Burn the Constitution," Feb. 16, 2007
- Blumenthal's "Above the Rule of Law,"the Guardian, Aug. 5, 2005, and the Bulletin's "Bush's Dirty War," Aug. 12, 2005
- Blumenthal's "Bush's Betrayal of History," Salon, Nov. 17, 2005, and the Bulletin's "Truth Is for Traitors," Nov. 25, 2005
- Walter Shapiro's "A Decisive Year for 'the Decider'," Salon, Dec. 26, 2006, and the Bulletin's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," Dec. 29, 2006
- Farhad Manjoo's "Bush's Sinking Popularity," Salon, April 29, 2005, and the Bulletin's "Sinking Ship?," May 6, 2005
- Joan Walsh's "Bye-Bye, Bullies!," Salon, Nov. 13, 2006, and the Bulletin's "Calamity for the Corrupt," Nov. 17, 2006
- Brad DeLong's "Mike Huckabee Wants To Abolish the IRS," Salon, Jan. 7, 2008, and the Bulletin's "Down With the IRS," Jan. 17, 2008
The Bulletin's rampant borrowing has not gone totally unnoticed. A May 2007 post on a now-dormant "Bulletin watchdog" blog, Nation of Mice, points out that an article on Rudy Giuliani was "completely plagiarized from Salon.com." "Low and behold, will The Bulletin Publisher and Editor Mike Ladyman ever give credit to pre-published articles in his liberal rag," the writer asks, not quite grammatically but not unreasonably.
I have tried in vain to put that question to Ladyman directly. But since June 17—the date when I first contacted the Bulletin's publisher and when we had our two phone conversations—I have had no communication with Ladyman or Mark Williams or any other member of the Bulletin's staff. I phoned Ladyman repeatedly at four different numbers, but he has not answered my calls. He has failed to respond to my voice-mail messages. I sent Ladyman three e-mails, all on June 17, to which he never replied. But I suspect that he received them: The e-mails detailed plagiarism in three articles bylined to Williams—"Spring Fling," the Eagles review, and the Dwight Yoakam review—and all three pieces have since disappeared from the Bulletin's Web archives. No correction or retraction was ever issued.
At times over the last month, I've doubted that the Bulletin actually exists. A tiny newspaper from the Houston suburbs, filled week after week with bowdlerized Joe Conason columns and record reviews airlifted from the pages of Slate? It seemed preposterous, and the longer I spent squinting into the mustard-and-magenta glow of the Bulletin's Web 0.0-quality Internet site, the more I began to suspect that I was the dupe of a conceptual art prank, a cheeky Borgesian commentary on the slipperiness of language and authorship. Or something.
But I telephoned the offices of Montgomery County's reputable daily, the Courier, and reporters there assured me that the Bulletin indeed exists. A Courier staffer picked up a copy at a shop in Conroe, Texas, and mailed it to me, and as I type these words I am looking at the front page of the Bulletin's latest edition, Volume 38, Issue 26, with a color cover photograph of Austin blues-rockers the Band of Heathens beneath the headline "Hot Summer, Hot Texas Music: New Lone Star CD Releases That Make the Summer Sizzle."
It is a tabloid format newspaper of just 16 pages. There are a couple of pages of classifieds, and lots of advertisements for local businesses: restaurants, real-estate brokers, the Schlitterbahn Waterparks. Unlike the Bulletin's Web site, the paper-proper has a masthead, which lists five staffers: Ladyman ("Publisher & Editor"), Williams ("Music Editor," "Staff Writer"), an account executive, a listings guy, and a graphic designer. (I tried to reach all of these Bulletin employees by phone, to no avail.) The masthead also reveals that the Bulletin is part of the Alternative Weekly Network, a nationwide consortium of 110 weekly publications.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.