Making sense of the blog statement by former Daily Beast reporter Gerald Posner.

Media criticism.
Feb. 11 2010 5:52 PM

The Posner Plagiarism Perplex

What to make of Gerald Posner's blog statement.

Screenshot from The Daily Beast.

Yesterday, Feb. 10, the Daily Beast dismissed its chief investigative reporter, Gerald Posner, for lifting the work of other journalists.

Posner's discharge came promptly after two Slate reports by me—Feb. 5 and Feb. 8—detailed his plagiarism in five Daily Beast articles. (I originally learned of Posner's pilfering from a reader tip.) According to Daily Beast Executive Editor Edward Felsenthal, an in-house review of Posner's work has turned up "additional examples of copied and unattributed material."

Not to press my foot on the windpipe of a disgraced journalist, but Posner's explanations invite further discussion of his transgression.

As I reported in my Feb. 5 piece, Posner said he could not recall how passages from a Miami Herald story had found their way into his article—but he did not dispute the charge that he had plagiarized. In a Feb. 10 blog statement, Posner tells more about how he "inadvertently" plagiarized other publications. The Web and the electronic research files he amassed made him do it. He writes:

The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer—with two years or more on a project—to what I describe as the "warp speed of the net." For the Beast articles, I created master electronic files, which contained all the information I developed about a topic—that included interviews, scanned documents, published articles, and public information. I often had master files that were 15,000 words, that needed to be cut into a story of 1,000 to 1500 words.

In the compressed deadlines of the Beast, it now seems certain that those master file[s] were a recipe for disaster for me. It allowed already published sources to get through to a number of my final and in the quick turnaround I then obviously lost sight of the fact that it belonged to a published source instead of being something I wrote.

As one who has been working at the warp speed of the Net since 1996, who routinely gathers Nexis dumps, clipped Web pages, scanned documents, handwritten notebooks, recorded interviews, DVRed news shows, hard-cover books bristling with Post-It notes, and nests of newspaper clippings fit for the incubation of Layson albatross eggs, I don't buy it. In recent years, I've written upward of 120 pieces annually, and my harder-working Slate colleagues—John Dickerson, Christopher Beam, Emily Bazelon, Timothy Noah, William Saletan, Dahlia Lithwick, Farhad Manjoo, et al.—have posted similar or higher numbers while writing on deadline. None of them has plagiarized. Nor have I.

Posner makes another claim in his statement that cannot go unchallenged. He writes:

Clearly, if I were a serial plagiarizer, I would have scanned my own drafts with such [plagiarism detection] software before submitting to the Beast.

But examples of plagiarized stories found by me and Slatereaders establish that Posner is a serial plagiarist! Of that there is no dispute! That he didn't scan his drafts with software before submitting them to the Daily Beast doesn't prove he isn't a serial plagiarist.

Via e-mail, Slate reader Michael Clark ridicules Posner's "assertion that if he were a serial plagiarizer (ehem, he is) then he'd have done it more effectively/cleverly. Another one of those strictly unnecessary claims that you hear all the time from plagiarists. It's one of the most laughable, in fact, since plagiarists are not clever or they'd be doing their own work."

Next in his blog, Posner tenders what I call the "banality of plagiarism" defense, which the New Republic's Ruth Shalit unfurled in 1995 when she was caught plagiarizing. (She, too, blamed her plagiarism on sloppy work methods.) Of the copy she lifted, Shalit told the Washington Post's Frank Ahrens, "They were very banal sentences." Banal, but good enough to steal.

Posner strikes a similar pose in his statement:

[T]he material copied—facts, figures, the most mundane information, not great prose from another writer—is yet further evidence that my focus was on breaking news, but not enough focus unfortunately on the background information in the articles.

Again, you don't have to rob from Proust to qualify as a low-down plagiarist. Even mundane information takes time and energy to collect and type up—sometimes more time and energy than it takes to toss off an original sonnet.

In an essay published by Media Ethics (fall 2006), Edward Wasserman attacks the wrong of plagiarism at its roots. Most everybody concedes that plagiarism harms plagiarized writers by denying them due credit for original work. But Wasserman delineates the harm done to readers. By concealing the true source of information, plagiarists deny "the public insight into how key facts come to light"and undermines the efforts of other journalists and readers to assess the truth value of the (embezzled) journalistic accounts. In Wasserman's view, plagiarism violates the very "truth-seeking and truth-telling" mission of journalism.

From the dissembling fog that is his blog statement, Posner reaches out to apologize to his readers, acknowledge that he "shortcut" his "own rigorous standards," and admit that he violated "the basic rules of journalism." Of the writers he stole from Posner says nothing. How many such writers are there? The count is still live. Yesterday, Slate reader Gregory Gelembiuk, who helped me build the Posner plagiarism dossier, sent me this previously unnoted example from the Daily Beast in which Posner lifts from the Associated Press.

******

I think that's enough Posner for now. Thanks to Slate intern Graham Vyse for his research assistance. Send tips to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and waltz to the music of 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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