Goodwin, McTaggart, and that book review.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 9 2002 6:40 PM

Goodwin, McTaggart, and That Book Review

Who's more irritating, the plagiarist or the plagiaree?

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But McTaggart's review became less complimentary when she turned her attention to that portion of Goodwin's book dealing with more recent events. Goodwin's problem, McTaggart wrote, was that she hadn't interviewed enough of the principals:

However inspired a historian, she is a timid reporter who stays firmly put in the library. She has ventured out to interview fewer than 50 people (including her own husband [former JFK aide Richard Goodwin]), and only one daughter and the 90-year-old Rose Kennedy among the surviving immediate family.

As a consequence, McTaggart informed Listener readers, Goodwin's book ended up relying too heavily on previous Kennedy biographies:

Much of the second half of the book is little more than a well-annotated—and in some cases, very closely paraphrased—collection of other Kennedy biographers' research.

This last snippet is the only reference in McTaggart's Listener review to Goodwin's plagiarism. Although it conveyed some flavor of McTaggart's subsequent complaint, it gave Listener readers no clue how serious the problem was. Goodwin did not "closely paraphrase" McTaggart's book. She plagiarized it, a word McTaggart had no trouble using in her recent Times op-ed. (A side-by-side comparison of several passages from McTaggart's book and Goodwin's in Crader's Weekly Standard piece makes clear that this was plagiarism.) McTaggart's polite circumspection in her Listener review undermines her subsequent moralizing about being ripped off. In a March 24 interview with the Associated Press, McTaggart said, "If somebody takes a third of somebody's book, which is what happened to me, they are lifting out the heart and guts of somebody else's individual expression." Why didn't she tell the Listener's readers 15 years ago that she felt so strongly about this?

McTaggart claims that venting such mean-spirited thoughts would not have been "professional." But Chatterbox fails to see what's professional about downplaying to one's readers a literary theft prior to seeking secret monetary restitution. As Chatterbox has argued earlier, the actual tort in most cases of plagiarism is pretty negligible. The party that gets harmed the most (and toward whom existing law has no concern) is the reader. Therefore, the best way to resolve cases of plagiarism is to do precisely what McTaggart didn't: inform the reading public. And the best way to achieve that, Chatterbox continues to believe, is to require authors to waive their right to sue someone else for plagiarism (excepting, of course, blatant copying of multiple whole pages, which amounts to piracy).

The alternative, as McTaggart's case shows, is to create a financial incentive for an author to keep mum when he finds out he's been plagiarized. Chatterbox presumes that the Listener ended up paying McTaggart at best a couple hundred dollars for her review. But if you include the cash Goodwin subsequently laid out to McTaggart in their confidential settlement, that Listener review probably earned McTaggart several thousands more.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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