The dirty dozen excuses plagiarists give for stealing copy.

Media criticism.
Feb. 17 2010 5:38 PM

The Plagiarist's Dirty Dozen Excuses

Take off your shoes and socks and count them all.

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Now and again the busted plagiarist will claim "complete responsibility" for his act—but what that really means is that he wants everybody to leave him alone. Which everybody usually does. As Trudy Lieberman demonstrated in a 1995 piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, many journalists caught red-handed plagiarizing their colleagues weren't banished from of the profession. Among the well-known names in Lieberman's article who lifted copy but whose careers continued are Edwin Chen, Fox Butterfield, Laura Parker, and Nina Totenberg.

Totenberg, whole stole from the Washington Post in 1972 while working at the National Observer, told Lieberman, "I was in a hurry. I used terrible judgment. ... The fact I used so many direct quotes obligated me morally to credit the Post. I should have been punished. I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again." (In a hurry; terrible judgment; made a mistake—sounds like excuses from the dirty dozen, doesn't it?)


But Totenberg wasn't young when she plagiarized the Post. She was 28 years old. Which means that unless the 31-year-old Kouwe, who has left the Times, committed acts of plagiarism beyond what's been uncovered in the early reports, he need not throw himself off a building. As Lieberman reminds us, the mean game that editors talk about punishing plagiarists is just that. Talk.


Help me expand the dirty dozen to a dirty score: Send additional plagiarism excuses to You need no excuse to read my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at