Why I/We Hate Plagiarism

The whole Melania Trump-Michelle Obama speeches story has caused an outcry within the media.  For the record, here is the biggest of the plagiarisms–first, Trump’s excerpt, then Obama’s:


speeches2Most folks might find the Melania mania overblown, but it is happening for a good reason, one that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with journalism:

While the media are reporting an important convention-related story, it’s more than that.  Because it involves plagiarism, we journalists are also reminding ourselves, by our strong response, just how repulsive we find the use of others’ words and ideas without credit.

Personally, as an academic and a journalist, I find plagiarism the worst offense against the printed word — worse than bias or even inaccuracy.  While I can’t speak for all journalists or all academics, I would predict it’s close to the unforgivable sin for both professions.

In the world of ideas, plagiarism is theft; it is the stealing of someone else’s communication of their thoughts, the essence of what sets us apart as humans.

Plagiarism is fraud; it’s a shortcut for someone who wants to be thought of as creative, enlightening and productive without actually being creative, enlightening and productive. It’s a lie.

Plagiarism is dumb; in the age of Google, it is so easily detected. It’s an insult to me that a student would even try. Do they really think I am as lazy and dumb as they are?

For all of the accuracy and bias accusations made against the news media (and often peremptorily discussed without sufficient response by journalists), plagiarism is dealt with quickly and severely. Whether by a professor or by an editor, the perpetrator is justly punished.

When is the last time you have heard of an accusation of plagiarism by a journalist that the defended the way that the Trump campaign is defending Melania? If one is out there, I’m not aware of it.

(And don’t mention Obama’s plagiarism of words by his friend, Deval Patrick. It was reported, Obama had a press conference to openly address it, and he admitted that these were ideas he and Patrick had discussed.)

Particularly in an age of social media, when we quickly and clearly see evidence of a journalist or an academic committing plagiarism, we want to move straight from evidence to sentencing.

I hear critics minimize the plagiarism as the stuff of politics, filled with bland platitudes that are certainly repeated, to everyone’s boredom. If that’s how politicians want to be, that’s their business.

But I won’t brush it off.  My personal ethic is to credit where I read things, even through h/t’s on Twitter. Even if I can’t remember the source, I will point out that the words are not original to me.

Ideas, and the words that express them, are too important. When an individual thinks and crafts words that move a reader or an audience, it is a wonderful process. (That we forfeit the wonder of reading such words to less intellectually stimulating pursuits is to our own loss.)

Whoever worked with Melania Trump so poorly corrupted what had been a special moment. To rationalize or breeze past it is a disgrace to any thinking human being, particularly one who aspires to be President of the United States.


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