Would Jill Abramson’s Plagiarism Argument Pass Muster at Harvard?Rolling Stone — Amelia McDonell-Parry
In 2008, Jill Abramson, the then-managing editor of the New York Times, had the unfortunate task of responding to accusations that a Times reporter had plagiarized two sentences from a Miami Herald article about the illicit drug ‘paco.’ Save for a few minor differences, the sentences were almost verbatim, and according to Abramson, “when you take material almost word-for-word and don’t credit it, it is [plagiarism].”
More than a decade later, Abramson doesn’t “see it that way,” appearing on CNN on February 10th to refute allegations that her new book, Merchants of Truth, contains numerous examples of plagiarism. The allegations were first made last week in a Twitter thread from Vice News correspondent Michael Moynihan, who rounded up half a dozen examples of details, phrases and nearly identical sentences lifted from previously published articles by the Columbia Journalism Review, The New Yorker, Time Out and the Ryerson Review of Journalism.
The irony is that Merchants of Truth is a book about the last decade of journalism, examining four media outlets — the Times, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed and Vice — and delving into how each has mitigated the myriad ethical issues presented by the increasingly blurring line between business and reporting the news. Even before the plagiarism allegations, Abramson’s book faced criticism from several Vice staffers for containing numerous factual errors and misrepresentations.
Although none of the allegedly plagiarized passages appear in quotes or include in-text citations, Abramson told CNN’s Brian Stelter that that many of the examples are credited in the book’s 70 pages of footnotes. Stelter, who worked under Abramson at the Times for years, pushed back, saying that such minimal attribution was insufficient.
“Even if I include a footnote, I still can’t steal their words, word for word the way that you did,” Stelter said.
“Well if you give them proper credit you can,” Abramson responded.
“But footnotes are not sufficient,” Stelter countered. “You have to say in the text that you’re taking the words from another source.”
It’s worth noting that footnotes appear at the end of Merchants of Truth, and are organized by page, rather than individual numbers that clearly correspond to specific passages. Each footnote contains the first few words of the corresponding text on a specific page, followed by a credit for the original source, or a note that it came from an original interview. A page may have one or several footnotes, but it’s not apparent in the text itself; instead, readers will need to consult the footnote section, referring back to their specified pages and scanning for the corresponding text in order to ascertain when Abramson’s book was somehow dependent on other people’s work.
Stelter also noted that Abramson’s views on appropriate attribution wouldn’t meet the editorial standards of either The New York Times — where she was employed for 17 years, three as its executive editor — or Harvard University, where Abramson is a lecturer. Indeed, according to the New York Times’ “Guidelines on Integrity,” when using “facts gathered by any other organization,” which “applies to material from newspapers, magazines, books and broadcasts,” the Times’ policy is to attribute them. Even in cases where the Times does its own reporting to “verify another organization’s story … as a matter of courtesy and candor, we credit an exclusive to the organization that first broke the news.”
Likewise, Harvard University, according to its website, advises students to follow guidelines set by both the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the Chicago Manual of Style, which require parenthetical in-text citations in addition to footnoted citations and a list of references. Harvard University did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
Abramson was willing to concede that some of examples were “way too close for comfort” to the original source material “and probably should have been in quotes.” But Merchants of Truth contains several instances where text was lifted from other sources but not credited in the footnotes at all, like a passage taken almost word-for-word from a 2010 Time Out article and a 2018 blogpost for the Columbia Journalism Review. Abramson said she felt “terrible,” but continued to insist that these “errors” did not amount to plagiarism.
“I made some errors in the way I credited sources but that there was no attempt to pass off someone else’s ideas, opinions and phrasings as my own,” Abramson told Stelter. “These were all factual passages that unfortunately did not match up exactly to the right footnotes.”
Simon & Schuster, the book’s publisher, released a statement defending the book as “exhaustively researched and meticulously sourced,” but promised that if any corrections are deemed necessary “we stand ready to work with the author in making those revisions.” They did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone.