Why the Washington Post Plagiarism Matters
Because it injures readers.
Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli blocked all escape routes that his reporter Sari Horwitz might have mapped when he told Yahoo News reporter Michael Calderone yesterday, "There are no mitigating circumstances for plagiarism."
Horwitz stole from at least two Arizona Republic stories about the prosecution of Jared Lee Loughner earlier this month, the Post reports today. (Here's the Post editor's note on the matter.) Brauchli delivered his justice swiftly. Having learned of the plagiarism in a Monday e-mail from Randy Lovely, editor of the Republic, Brauchli had sentenced Horwitz to a three-month suspension by Wednesday.
Even though her offense was apparent, Horwitz still sought mitigation in her apology, saying "Under the pressure of tight deadlines, I did something I have never done in my entire career. I used another newspaper's work as if it were my own. It was wrong. It was inexcusable."
But it really doesn't matter what Horwitz's excuse for plagiarizing was. If she was suffering from panic attacks because the Romulans were invading, it wouldn't count as an excuse.* As Brauchli put it succinctly, no mitigating circumstances need apply. Do the crime, do the time.
The most aggrieved victims of plagiarism, as I've written before, aren't the writers whose work has been snatched. It isn't the editors who've been duped, although they can be relied upon to sob a hankie damp when a plagiarism incident includes them. The real victims are readers, who trust that the reporter accurately reported the story he filed under his byline.
In the Horwitz case, we have no assurance that she knew what she was writing about when she lifted from the Republic. In the first pinching, she took two paragraphs from a March 5 story by the Republic's Michael Kiefer. Kiefer writes:
Many of the additional charges were made under a provision in federal civil-rights law that is usually applied to hate crimes but can be extended to crimes against any person "participating in or enjoying any benefit, service, privilege, program, facility, or activity provided or administered by the United States"—in this case, Giffords' meet-and-greet event with her Tucson-area constituents.
The federal law forbids anyone from injuring, intimidating or interfering with a person involved in such a federal activity, or attempting to do so.
In her March 5 story, Horwitz writes two nearly identical passages:
The additional charges were made under a provision in federal civil rights law that is usually applied to hate crimes but can be extended to crimes against any person "participating in or enjoying any benefit, service, privilege, program, facility or activity provided or administered by the United States." In this case, that would be Giffords's "Congress on Your Corner"—meet-and-greet with her Tucson constituents.
The federal law forbids anyone from injuring, intimidating or interfering with any such person, or attempting to do so.
The Republic paragraphs are a layman's explanations of the court filings against Loughner, and there's little artistry or journalistic originality in the sentences Kiefer lays down. If he's waltzing around today, inflated with authorial pride over these 80 words, he's a dork. But I trust that he's sitting calmly and that he's no dork at all. He's written clear, informative copy about a complicated criminal indictment—exactly what his readers want. I prefer stuff like this to the slop that Henry James ladled out.
But even if Horwitz inspected the supporting legal documents before she made off with Kiefer's copy and she's about to plead that she lifted mere boilerplate, she's still guilty of stealing his understanding of the case and presenting it as her own.
I trust that Kiefer has accurately reported the Loughner case, but there's an extreme long-shot chance that he hasn't, which is precisely why the Washington Post assigned somebody from its newsroom to cover the story rather than running wire copy or reprinting Republic pieces: The Post believes that its staffers are better than the competition's staffers. By stealing Republic copy and calling it her own, she defrauded the Post, which is naughty. But it's not the end of the world: The Grahams won't go to bed hungry tonight.
The most serious fraud was perpetrated on Post readers, no matter what process Horwitz used to plagiarize the Republic. If she blindly plagiarized Kiefer, and Kiefer erred, then Post readers suffered because they read a faulty story. If she blindly plagiarized Kiefer, and Kiefer filed meh copy, then Post readers still suffered because they could have read something better. If she blindly plagiarized Kiefer and he did a brilliant job but she wasn't sufficiently intimate with the facts to know whether he was filing brilliant copy or crap, she wouldn't have known if she ought to redouble her efforts and out-report him, allowing those poor Post readers to suffer again. It's lose-lose-lose for Post readers.
Don't worry too much about Horwitz. I'm sure she's miserable today, but she and her career will eventually recover because the news industry is generally tolerant of accused plagiarism, as this classic piece from the July/August 1995 Columbia Journalism Review reveals. Oh, they may be forced to take a time-out, as Horwitz is, or they may get fired. But if they wear the hair shirt and keep their heads down, they can usually find work and continue typing as if nothing ever happened.
Only readers suffer forever. *This article was updated at 9:05 p.m. to excise a poorly chosen hypothetical.
*This article was updated at 9:05 p.m. to excise a poorly chosen hypothetical.
And I never got around to discussing Horwitz's other plagiarized story, the one from March 11, which was also based on a Republic piece. Have at it and send your impressions via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Plagiarize my Twitter feed at your own peril! (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.)