The Deeper Fakery of Couric's Plagiarism
Why original thought is harder to steal.
I'm hardly the first to point out the risible irony in CBS News firing Web producer Melissa McNamara for passing off as her own work a commentary she ghosted for Katie Couric that borrowed extensively from a March 15 Wall Street Journal column by Jeffrey Zaslow. From a strictly narrow perspective, of course, CBS was justified in firing McNamara. The network paid her to write original essays for Katie Couric to read in video and audio clips made available on its Web site and to CBS-owned radio stations. McNamara deceived CBS by plagiarizing the Journal. But CBS News wronged visitors to its Web site by inviting them to think that the opinions Couric expressed in these commentaries were her own. It's no special knock on Couric; before Couric, Dan Rather regularly recited commentaries on the radio that were written by others, and Walter Cronkite did the same before him.
The deception was a little more conspicuous in this instance, at least retrospectively, because it began with a personal memory: "I still remember when I first got my library card." That sentence was not lifted from the Zaslow column, but it's actually more fake than anything else in the commentary because it purports to be a personal recollection. In fact, however, it is McNamara remembering on Couric's behalf the time she toddled up to the library, filled out a form, and was handed her very own library card. It's a safe counterfeit because every kid gets a library card. Getting one is a rite of passage, and therefore everybody ends up remembering it. Or so it is presumed. I was an enthusiastic reader as a child, but I can't say that I remember getting my first library card. My undying library memory from youth is that the prudish matron behind the checkout desk wouldn't let me take out books that weren't in the children's section, even after my mother told her that she'd given me permission to use her library card. To borrow the books I wanted (we're talking racy stuff like The Mouse That Roared), I had to get my mother to come down to the library and check them out herself. For many years thereafter, I disliked on sight every librarian I encountered.
A counterfeit memory like "I still remember when I first got my library card" can easily be assigned to someone else. A real memory like my long-held prejudice against all librarians and the petty tyranny that led me to it cannot. This leads us to the deeper phoniness that hobbles the assembly-line anchorperson-commentary racket CBS News has been running for decades. If person A is going to express a personal memory or opinion on behalf of person B, and person B is not someone who identifies publicly with specific positions on matters of public debate—something network news anchors (outside of Fox, anyway) are discouraged from doing—then person A will hew carefully to anodyne sentiment. The result is commentary devoid of any substance or interest. If you think I'm being unfair, click here for Couric on the dirtiness of desks, here for Couric on the need to teach English to immigrants, and here for Couric expressing the desire that the public judge political candidates fairly. Couric is a superb journalist, but you'd never guess that from this pap. It was the same with her predecessors. Do you remember, even once in your life, anybody ever saying, "I heard Katie Couric/Dan Rather/Walter Cronkite make a really interesting point today in her/his daily commentary?" Of course you don't. This blather isn't meant to be remembered. It's merely meant to extend, in some intangible way, the brand.
Peggy Noonan, a columnist and former Reagan speechwriter, began her career writing commentaries for Dan Rather. In her memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution, she recalls one instance where she wrote something for Rather that actually rocked the boat a little bit. A radio editor expressed his disapproval by saying it was "more like an editorial than a commentary." This was, of course, another way of saying that commentaries weren't supposed to say anything more controversial than, say, that public libraries sure are swell.
Interestingly, even this risqué commentary/editorial that Noonan fashioned for Rather was a little bit phony. The commentary was about the jury verdict finding President Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley, not guilty by reason of insanity. The point Noonan persuaded Rather to make was that this was a miscarriage of justice; the verdict showed you could "buy your way out" of an attempted-murder rap "with clever lawyers and expensive psychiatrists." A defensible position, but the phoniness didn't reside in the opinion itself. It lay in the scene-setting way Noonan/Rather began. "There was a dreamlike quality to what happened in the courtroom yesterday," Noonan wrote. Only Noonan hadn't been there, and neither had Rather. Noonan/Rather described spectators who "look at each other in astonishment and turn to each other with words, and the judge snaps, 'There will be order here!' " Noonan/Rather hadn't been present to see spectators look at each other in astonishment and turn to each other with words, and although it's possible Noonan got the judge's call for order from a transcript or from a CBS producer who was there, I'm going to guess she made the quote up. These details were written in to make the commentary more vivid. But they couldn't be so vivid that they might run the risk of being provably untrue. That was the essence of their phoniness.
The apparent ease with which McNamara helped herself to Zaslow's Wall Street Journal column isn't particularly flattering to Zaslow. Zaslow has a flair for writing quirky, vivid journalism, but that wasn't on display in this instance. If it had been, McNamara would have had a harder time shoplifting the column, because it would have expressed too obviously the sensibility of someone who clearly was neither McNamara nor Couric. Zaslow's library column was a bland public service announcement. It was sanctimonious, memorable, and essentially fake, not in the sense that it was untrue—hey, I love libraries, too—but rather in the sense that it bore no mark of original thought or genuine feeling. We journalists produce more of this crap than we'd usually like to admit.
Expressing truth is hard work. There's a story, probably apocryphal, about Pablo Picasso visiting the home of a wealthy art collector. The collector proudly displays to the artist a Picasso painting he purchased at great cost some years before. Picasso scrutinizes the painting for a moment and then pronounces: "It's a fake."
"You mean, you never painted it?" the collector sputters.
"No, I painted it," Picasso answers. "But it's a fake. I often paint fakes."
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Katie Couric by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.