Simon of Troy.

Simon of Troy.

Simon of Troy.

Media criticism.
Aug. 3 2004 12:17 PM

Simon of Troy

A U.S. News & World Report writer gets too familiar with his academic source.

U.S. News & World Report chief political correspondent Roger Simon deeply admires the work of McGill University professor of history Gil Troy. Simon has quoted him in at least five U.S. News pieces since the summer of 1999 and in another four articles between February 1998 and February 1999 in the Chicago Tribune, Simon's previous publication.

But in last week's U.S. News, Simon took his admiration of Troy a tad too far. In the second paragraph of "Kerry's Coronation Ball," Simon paraphrased without attribution—some would say plagiarized—an equal-size portion of Troy's See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate (1996, revised ed.).

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In his lede, Simon explains that presidential nominees once avoided the political conventions that picked them. "They stayed away from the baking-hot, smoke-filled auditoriums, remaining unsullied and above it all, usually at home, while waiting to be 'notified' of their good fortune," he writes. He continues:

While the notification tradition may have been dignified, it robbed the many thousands assembled at the convention halls of seeing and hearing the candidate. Finally, in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt pronounced the tradition "absurd" and decided to fly to Chicago to accept his nomination in person and to prove that he was not, as advertising man Bruce Barton had called him, "just a name and a crutch." (Friends begged FDR not to risk his life in a "flying machine," but he made the long flight from Albany to Chicago anyway, and while his son John emerged looking green, Roosevelt looked positively invigorated.) On his big night, Roosevelt drove a nail in the coffin of the notification tradition by telling the delegates and all those listening by radio, "You have nominated me, and I know it!"

Compare Simon's copy to this passage from pages 161 and 162 of Troy's book:

Bruce Barton sneered that Roosevelt, crippled by polio, "is essentially 'just a name and a crutch'."

Roosevelt quickly confuted such cruel dismissals. ... The notification ceremony, with its demure interval between nomination and acceptance, was a quaint sham. ... Roosevelt decided to fly to the Democratic convention and accept the nomination in person. Delegates still unsure about these flying machines begged him not to come. His son John alighted after the long flight from Albany to Chicago a sickly shade of green, but the elder Roosevelt emerged refreshed. "You have nominated me and I know it," Roosevelt pronounced, dispatching with the century-old fiction, "and I am here to thank you for the honor."

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The similarities satisfy one of the definitions of plagiarism found in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers: "[T]he failure to give appropriate acknowledgement when repeating or paraphrasing another's wording, when taking a particularly apt phrase, and when paraphrasing another's argument or presenting another's line of thinking."

When Simon writes that "Franklin Roosevelt … decided to fly to Chicago to accept his nomination in person," he's clearly lifting and lightly editing this sentence from Troy: "Roosevelt decided to fly to the Democratic convention and accept the nomination in person."

In both Troy and Simon's versions, there are only three named individuals, Bruce Barton, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Roosevelt. Both recount the Barton quote about Roosevelt being "just a name and a crutch." Both repeat what the MLA Handbook would call an "apt phrase" by referring to unreliable "flying machines" ("flying machine" in Simon) in the anecdote about Roosevelt ignoring his comrades' admonition that he not take a plane to the convention. Both have John Roosevelt turning green from the flight and Franklin Roosevelt enduring the journey with relish.

Professor Troy explains via e-mail that he tends to gives journalists more "slack" than students or colleagues in this realm because space and time restraints often don't permit them to footnote their work adequately. He also confesses to a reservoir of good will toward Simon, who is an obvious devotee of See How They Ran and who has quoted him repeatedly. But in a phone interview, Troy says that under current academic standards it would be "unacceptable" if a student did what Simon did as a part of his coursework without footnoting the book or putting it in his bibliography.

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Troy writes that there are only so many ways to convey an anecdote, and that as long as there is a good faith effort to cite the source, and the second writer doesn't copy the first exactly, we shouldn't rush to accuse a writer of plagiarism. But in Simon's case, no effort was made to cite Troy. And there is always more than one way to skin an anecdote, as historian William E. Leuchtenburg proves on Page 8 of his 1963 book, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Leuchtenburg writes:

Upsetting all precedents, Roosevelt flew to Chicago—in a tri-motored plane that was buffeted by squalls and twice had to land to refuel—to deliver the first acceptance speech ever made to a nominating convention, incidentally helping dispel the notion at the outset that he was too frail to undertake a strenuous campaign. The Governor pointed out: "I have started out on the tasks that lie ahead by breaking the absurd traditions that the candidate should remain in professed ignorance of what has happened for weeks until he is formally notified of that event many weeks later. … You have nominated me and I know it, and I am here to thank you for the honor."

Roger Simon left this voice-mail message when given the Troy passage and asked for a comment: "Any repetition was inadvertent. I have quoted Gil Troy by name on a number of occasions. I should have given him credit on this occasion, but it was totally accidental, and I apologize to Professor Troy."

Exactly how did his passage come to resemble Troy's?

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"I don't know," he says. "I don't recall."

Does he think he plagiarized Troy?

"What's there is there," Simon replies. "I think you're making an awful big deal of this."

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