On August 18th, the morning after Bill Clinton’s nationally televised speech about his “not appropriate” relationship with Monica Lewinsky, most newspapers hit him with both barrels. Based on personal experiences I’ll describe in just a bit, I was particularly interested in the editorials at two papers, the Toronto Star and the Los Angeles Times. According to the Star editorial, the speech was way overdue and it proved Clinton “is a common liar,” and that he “has diminished his high office, has fueled public cynicism, and has invited people to accept a low standard of responsibility.” The Times editorial said that Americans “have a right to feel disappointment” in Clinton and exhorted readers to “think of all the grief Clinton could have saved himself, his family, the White House staff, and the country” if he had only spoken the truth last January. The editorial was titled “Seven Months Late.” In short, these two papers made it clear that they morally condemn any delay in telling the truth or in taking responsibility for having lied.
Anyway, that’s their position when it comes to presidents. It’s not their position when it comes to reporters. At least not their reporters.
In early 1989, shortly after I began work as an editor at the Washington Monthly, the magazine received a letter from a Canadian reader notifying us of something amiss in a column by Toronto Star Washington, D.C. bureau chief Bob Hepburn that ran in the paper on January 5, 1989. We got the Hepburn column and soon saw for ourselves that the letter writer was correct: Three paragraphs in the column were identical to three paragraphs in the already-published January 1989 Monthly cover story about corruption and mismanagement in the D.C. city government by then-editor Jason DeParle, now with the New York Times (save for one word: Hepburn’s bow to originality was to use “murders” where DeParle had used “killings”). Hepburn made no mention of DeParle.
In October 1989, I read a piece in that month’s Vanity Fair by a writer named Ann Louise Bardach about a $1 million murder-for-insurance scheme that almost worked. It involved a doctor who killed a patient, body switching, and a nationwide manhunt. It remains one of the best true crime stories I’ve ever read. A few years later, I stumbled upon a 154-word notice inside the second section of the Los Angeles Times stating that Bardach was suing Times reporter Edwin Chen and Penguin Books for copyright infringement over Chen’s 1992 Penguin paperback, Cheating Death. I called Bardach up, soon met with her, and got Chen’s book. I saw with my own eyes that there were at least 40 passages in Chen’s book that were virtually identical to passages in Bardach’s piece. I learned that Chen received $50,000 for his book and was about to make a movie deal when Bardach’s lawsuit interrupted his plans. I obtained a copy of the sworn deposition Chen gave in preparation for trial, where I learned that before coming out with his book, Chen had talked to Bardach twice about her research; that Chen hired five researchers to work on his book—about a crime that unfolded in Southern California and Ohio—while he was working for the Times in Washington, D.C. and Saudi Arabia; that along with letters of introduction he sent to some of these researchers, Chen provided Bardach’s Vanity Fair piece; and that in his book’s acknowledgements, Chen mentioned all of his hired researchers but did not mention Bardach. I also learned that subsequently, although neither Chen nor Penguin ever admitted any wrongdoing, under a judgment entered in favor of Bardach by the court, Penguin paid Bardach $25,000. (Chen kept his $50,000.)
Journalists—especially, I would later find out, cornered journalists—like to use their word skills to make plagiarism seem more complicated and less wrong than it is. Plagiarism isn’t really just about words. Primarily, it’s about screwing with journalism’s fundamental assumption: A reader presupposes of any newspaper story stating X that the reporter named in the byline has attempted to independently verify X. Fiction-writing á la Stephen Glass or Mike Barnicle violates that assumption—in these cases, the writer knows he has done no such thing. But plagiarists like Hepburn and Chen violate it too, the only difference being that fiction writers know there is no independent evidence for X while plagiarists simply don’t have any.
Secondarily, plagiarism is a form of theft. Reporter A seeks out an explorer in the middle of the jungle and does what no one has ever done before: gets him to talk. When Reporter B skips the jungle and the cajoling and simply passes off the interview as his own, he is converting A’s labor and skill to his own profit. So, to sum up, plagiarism is a sin against readers—lying to them—and against writers—stealing from them. In fact, here’s a handy definition to remember when the b.s. starts flying: It’s lying about stealing.
(Note: Since defensive wordsmiths will grasp at any straw, I should note that my having previously written about Hepburn and Chen—in the Fall 1994 Forbes MediaCritic—doesn’t make the piece you are now reading plagiarism. It’s just common sense that you can no more plagiarize from yourself than you can steal from your own bank account. And it’s the law: I never sold the previous piece to Forbes MediaCritic—being a freelancer at the time, I rented it out to the magazine for a single use. All subsequent intellectual property rights to the article remained mine.)
Well, it’s clear what the Star and the Times think of lying about sex. What do they think about lying about stealing? (Which, unlike furtive sex, is clearly job-related.) Do they feel disappointed in their plagiarizing employees? Do they insist on a prompt confession and apology and enforce a high standard of responsibility?
Shortly after I learned about Hepburn’s cribbing, I had a phone conversation with a top editor at the Toronto Star, who assured me that the matter would be dealt with in the strictest possible terms. But here’s what actually happened. On May 17, 1989, Hepburn wrote a column in the Star about the matter. He never used the word “apology” or said he was sorry. He called what he’d done a “mistake,” and hid behind the passive voice, saying, “This is the first time anything like this has ever happened to me.” Hepburn’s explanation was that in preparing the original column he collected material from his newspaper and magazine files on Washington and then “as is my practice, I had copied them on a legal-sized notepad.” What happened, he wrote, is that “when I actually wrote the column, I inadvertently repeated” DeParle’s material.
Raise your hand if you think the Washington bureau chief of Canada’s largest newspaper doesn’t have access to a copying machine.
To further minimize what he’d done, Hepburn noted that the offending three paragraphs were “all I took from the 12-page magazine article—not another sentence, not even a phrase.” (Actually that’s not true. Hepburn segued into the vexed paragraphs by remarking that they provided examples of why Washington was “the worst city government in the U.S.” And what was the title of DeParle’s story? “The Worst City Government in America.”) What Hepburn didn’t mention was that his column was only 16 paragraphs, and that some 100 of its 600-odd words were DeParle’s. Although the headline over Hepburn’s follow-up column oxymoronically refers to inadvertent plagiarism, the column itself never breathes the p-word.
But the column did suggest that some punishment was at hand. Hepburn concluded, “[T]his will be the last column I write for the Toronto Star on this page for the foreseeable future.” But nine days later, Hepburn was back in the paper with two pieces, one on the business section front page. Today he is the paper’s foreign editor. (“Would a Canadian prime minister,” wondered that Star editorial about The Speech, “exposed as Clinton has been in trying to deceive the public, have the decency to resign? We would hope so.”)
Neither Edwin Chen, nor his Penguin editor, nor the editor of the Los Angeles Times at the time this all happened, Shelby Coffey III (now a big-shot at ABC News), would talk to me about the Bardach episode. The Times‘ then-national editor, Norman C. Miller, did speak to me, telling me that at the time Bardach filed the lawsuit he was satisfied by Chen’s statement to him that “these were common sources and that he didn’t plagiarize.” But Miller admitted that he made this judgment without having looked at Chen’s damning deposition, a document Miller confessed to me he still hadn’t read by the time of our conversation, although it had by then been available for months.
In Chen’s deposition, when confronted by a passage from his book that is nearly identical to one of Bardach’s, he denied copying—what he did, he said, was describe an identical place with identical words. A place, by the way, that Bardach had visited, but that Chen had not. And indeed, the deposition makes it clear that many statements that in Chen’s book appear to be made to Chen were in fact only made to Bardach, some of them by people Chen never met. The readers of the Los Angeles Times were never informed of any of this. Not a word from Chen, nor from the paper’s celebrated media reporter David Shaw, and no fulminating editorials. To this moment, that buried 154-word lawsuit notice is it. And there is no evidence that Chen has ever been sanctioned. Today he is a highly regarded member of the Times‘ Washington bureau, his pieces regularly appearing on the front page. One of his recent efforts there ran under the headline: “Both Sides Urge Clinton to Admit He Told Lies.”
If seven months is too long to be kept from the truth about misconduct, what about nine years?
Scott Shuger writes the “Today’s Papers” column for Slate magazine. His pieces have also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, the New Republic, Los Angeles, the Washington Monthly, and other national and local publications.