Obama, ABC, and Attribution
ABC News chides Obama while stealing credit from the Boston Globe.
Jake Tapper of ABC News, in his "Political Punch" Web log, shares Hillary Clinton's outrage that Barack Obama failed to attribute properly a line he borrowed from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick in a speech:
It does seem to me that this issue may also be one between Obama and his supporters, not just Obama and Patrick. Thousands, if not millions, of Americans are inspired by Obama's words. They do not think they are "just words." But many of them also likely think they are at least somewhat original.
But before Tapper works himself into too much of a lather about Obama's failure to attribute properly—a pretty trivial offense because in the realm of speechifying, such borrowings have long been an accepted norm—he might consider his own news organization's similarly trivial failure to attribute properly the story of Obama's trivial failure to attribute properly.
I realize we're heading into a Gödel, Escher, Bach-style hall of mirrors, but bear with me.
ABC News' Sunlen Miller and Teddy Davis claimed on Feb. 19 that the story of Obama borrowing Patrick's "just words" line was "first reported by ABC News' Jake Tapper." Not true! The story of Obama borrowing Patrick's "just words" line was first reported by Scott Helman of the Boston Globe in April 2007.
ABC News' attempt to claim credit for breaking this bogus plagiarism story is, if anything, a greater moral offense than Obama's bogus plagiarism itself (though both ethical breaches are measured in microns). After all, ABC News is claiming affirmatively that it broke the plagiarism story. Obama, though he borrowed Patrick's words (just as, on previous occasions, Patrick has borrowed his) never claimed affirmatively that he invented them. Or rather, that his campaign staff invented them, though here things get a little complicated because the line was probably fed to both Patrick and Obama by the political strategist, David Axelrod, who has worked for both of them.
I want to be clear that I'm not accusing Tapper himself of grabbing credit for the story. When he first wrote about this on Feb. 17, he very carefully provided links to the Globe piece, and also to earlier pieces in the New York Observer and Politico. Granted, Tapper didn't knock himself out explaining that the Globe piece began with Obama recycling the very same "just words" line from Patrick that he, Tapper, was reporting on. But the headline ("Obama Echoes Deval Patrick … Again") got the message across that this wasn't a new story. The repetition was actually the point: Obama did it before, and now he's doing it again. Naughty Obama!
I do fault Tapper, though, for changing his tone after Hillary Clinton seized on the issue and her campaign started making headlines by using the p-word.
In the original Feb. 17 piece, Tapper adopted the same (appropriate) equanimity previously taken by the Globe, the Observer, and Politico: "Common language and themes are not unheard of in politics, though it can also be controversial. … What do you think?" Not what you'd call an auto–da–fé.
Then the Clinton campaign used the story to go negative on Obama, and attracted much wider attention. What had previously been a mildly interesting observation had become A Story. Only at that point did Tapper add, in an update, the censorious judgment I quote at the start of this column. In two follow-ups (here and here), Tapper demands to know precisely when Obama started borrowing the "just words" line.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.