Before Abramson, a Long Line of Writers' Crediting Errors

Before Abramson, a Long Line of Writers' Crediting Errors
AP Photo/Nell Redmond
Before Abramson, a Long Line of Writers' Crediting Errors
AP Photo/Nell Redmond
Story Stream
recent articles

In journalism, there is no worse crime than plagiarism. But when accused, even top writers are not always forthcoming with apologies or acknowledgments of wrong-doing. Recently, Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times and a senior lecturer at Harvard, was accused of plagiarizing in her new book, “Merchants of Truth.” Not only does she not properly credit some authors, but she appears to lift certain passages word-for-word from others. 

So far, her defense has been that she unintentionally failed to credit all authors. In an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter, she didn’t apologize for what appear to be verbatim quotations. According to Abramson, if properly credited in a footnote 300 pages later, that’s not plagiarism.

The history of high-profile plagiarism cases includes many unapologetic responses on the part of the accused, as well as some expressing remorse. Here’s a sampler:

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Goodwin, a respected presidential historian, published her second book, “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys,” in 1987. Fifteen years later, Goodwin faced accusations of plagiarizing from other Kennedy books. She did not admit to this and called it rather “a mistake in technique. I’d like to believe that I will never make it again,” according to the Guardian.  Goodwin went on to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, “No Ordinary Time,” and recently published “Leadership in Turbulent Times.”

Stephen E. Ambrose

Ambrose, a prolific and popular American historian, was accused of plagiarism in 2002. According to Forbes, he admitted to and apologized for copying “some phrases” and “a few sentences” in a number of his books. In one case, a check of his book “Upton and the Army” found at least 11 cases of inadequate credit.

Alex Haley

The celebrated American author faced plagiarism charges for his much-praised 1976 book, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” In 1978 Haley settled a lawsuit, acknowledging that “Roots” included numerous passages from an earlier novel by Harold Courlander, “The African.” According to the New York Times, Haley “denied that he had knowingly made any factual errors.”

Melania Trump

Perhaps no one has been accused of more brazen plagiarism than the first lady. Passages from Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016 were almost identical to Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. While not admitting to the accusation, the Trump campaign issued a statement that Melania Trump’s team of writers “took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments [of others’ words] that reflected her own thinking.”

Joe Biden

While not well remembered, former vice president Joe Biden was condemned as a plagiarist in 1988, leading the Delaware senator to give up his presidential run. Not only did Biden lift phrases from the speeches of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, but more egregiously he also borrowed biographical details about Kinnock that weren’t true of himself. The accusations didn’t stop there: According to Slate, soon after he was accused of plagiarizing Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. When heckled at a campaign event, Biden defended himself by saying, “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do.” Biden added that he “went to law school on a full academic scholarship.” This too, is false.

Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria, the host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” and a columnist for the Washington Post, acknowledged in 2012 that he plagiarized portions of another writer’s piece on gun control. Zakaria published a formal apology, saying that his piece bore “close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker.” He called this “a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault.” And, according to the Washington Post, Zakaria faced further accusations of more widespread plagiarism in 2014 – though neither the Post nor CNN considered the examples cited by the website Our Bad Media to be serious journalistic offenses.

Rand Paul

In 2013, reports surfaced that the Kentucky senator had plagiarized the work of others in his speeches. MSNBC initially accused Paul of borrowing words from a Wikipedia page for the film “Gattaca,” according to a Washington Post report. BuzzFeed found similarities between a Paul speech on immigration and lines from the movie “Stand and Deliver.” Politico reported that Paul’s 2013 response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address precisely echoed a 2011 report by the Associated Press. When asked to comment on the “Gattaca” accusation, Paul said, “Nothing I said was not given attribution to where it came from. … The rest of it’s making a mountain out of a molehill from people, I think, basically who are political enemies and have an axe to grind.”

John Walsh

Walsh, a veteran of the Iraq War who was briefly an appointed senator from Montana, had his master’s degree from the Army War College rescinded after an examination indicated he lifted a substantial part of his thesis on American Middle East policy from other authors without attribution, reported the New York Times. After his degree was taken away, Walsh said, “Though I disagree with the findings made by the War College, I accept its decision with great humility and respect for the U.S. military.” He also gave up his bid to win election to a full Senate term.

Kaavya Viswanathan

While just a sophomore at Harvard, Viswanathan was accused of plagiarizing from several sources, including two books by Megan F. McCafferty. According to the Harvard Crimson, Viswanathan lifted word-for-word passages for her 2006 young adult novel, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,” from McCafferty’s “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings.” Viswanathan appears to never have acknowledged this accusation. When the Crimson reached out to her, she said, “No comment. I have no idea what you are talking about.” Her publisher, however, had a different response. Little, Brown recalled all copies of “Opal Mehta” and canceled a planned second book and its $500,000 contract with the young author.

Jayson Blair

In what the New York Times described as a low-point in its long history, former Times reporter Blair “committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months,” according to the newspaper’s internal investigation. His fraud included making up whole scenes depicted in his stories and taking work from other news sources. In a statement, Blair mentioned “personal problems,” the Times said. Addressing students at Duke University in 2016, Blair explained that he had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and was getting over drug and alcohol addiction, at the time.

Show comments Hide Comments