Having confessed to lifting Josh Marshall's copy, the Times' Maureen Dowd almost sets things right.

Media criticism.
May 18 2009 7:06 PM

Maureen Dowd's Next Step

Having confessed to lifting copy, the New York Times' columnist almost sets things right.

Maureen Dowd.
Maureen Dowd

That New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd plagiarized Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo cannot be denied.

As a reader/blogger on Talking Points Memo's community site discovered yesterday (May 17), Dowd's May 17 column pinched about 40 words from one of Marshall's online posts without attribution. * (Dowd's column has since been updated and corrected.)

In correspondence with the Huffington Post and Politicoafter the lifted passage was pointed out, Dowd suggested she had been talking and e-mailing with a friend about the topic of her column, mistook Marshall's passage for her friend's work, and used it in her column. It's unclear whether Marshall's work ended up in Dowd's column because she took near-perfect notes of the conversation with the unnamed friend or because she cut and pasted from the friend's e-mail.

Bad, Dowd, bad—deserving of hard time in a pillory! Still, that said, Dowd has done several things accused plagiarists rarely do when apprehended, and for that, I commend her. For example:

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  1. She responded promptly to the charge of plagiarism when confronted by the Huffington Post and Politico. (Many plagiarists go into hiding or deny getting material from other sources.)
  2. She and her paper quickly amended her column and published a correction (although the correction is a little soft for my taste).
  3. Her explanation of how the plagiarism happened seems plausible—if a tad incomplete.
  4. She's not yet used the explanation as an excuse, nor has she said it's "time to move on."
  5. She'snotyetprotested that her lifting wasn't plagiarism.
  6. She's taking her lumps and not whining about it.

The fourth and fifth points are, for me, key. Many a plagiarist in the past has blamed his theft on over-work, a sick child at home, alcohol use, mental illness, workplace harassment, or a dying parent in the hospice. Others have blamed the sticky cut-and-paste function of their word processors or claimed the words that they copied weren't that unique, so what's the big deal? Or they've appealed for a get-out-of-pillory-free card because they didn't deliberately copy that passage.

Dowd isn't offering any of these cop-outs. I hope I'm not reading too much into her fragmentary responses, but she appears to understand that neither carelessness nor intent constitutes a plagiarism defense. Compare Dowd's early behavior with that of Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has repeatedly sought to evade responsibility for her plagiarism. In this excellent piece, Slate's Timothy Noah demolishes the historians and authors who wrote a feeble letter to the New York Times in an attempt to exonerate Goodwin. (I've collected Noah's fine work on Goodwin and plagiarism here.)

Although Dowd is catching sweet hell from her press colleagues today, the journalism profession turns out to be far more forgiving of plagiarism and plagiarists than they'd have you believe. As Trudy Lieberman reported brilliantly for the Columbia Journalism Review in 1995, "Punishment [for plagiarism] is uneven, ranging from severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses. The sin itself carries neither public humiliation nor the mark of Cain. Some editors will keep a plagiarist on staff or will knowingly hire one if talent outweighs the infraction."

Right now, I suspect that, more than anything, Dowd wants the whole mess to disappear. Even though she has a reputation for routinely crediting others in her columns—a point Dan Kennedy makes today in his critical Guardian column—that doesn't really matter. As long as she's in the business, somebody will be taunting her about it. The best and perhaps only way for Dowd to set things right will be to proceed directly to Step 7 and tell her readers in detail how she came to commit this transgression. According to the Times schedule, her next column will run Wednesday. I hope to read it there.

Addendum, May 20: Dowd didn't write about the plagiarism incident.