Tuesday, November 8, 2005

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How hard is it to use a f#$%ing footnote?

Apparently, U.S. Representative Sherrod Brown sent a letter to Mike DeWine regarding the Samuel Alito nomination, and the letter essentially copied a Nathan Newman post about Alito's take on labor rights. Brown's staff admitted to Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Stephen Koff that "90 percent of what Brown, an Avon Democrat, wrote in his letter was lifted from an Internet posting by a blogger."

I'm quoted by Koff in the story:

While the line dividing politicians and online political commentary sometimes seems fuzzy, University of Chicago political scientist Daniel Drezner, himself a blogger and co-editor of a forthcoming book on politics and blogging, says Brown went "outside the bounds."

He compared it with Sen. Joe Biden, the Delaware Democrat who dropped out of the 1988 presidential race after it was learned he plagiarized part of a stump speech.

"It strikes me as pretty much the same thing," Drezner said. "It's plagiarism."

Brown's office acknowledged that it should not have used Newman's words without giving him credit. Spokeswoman Joanna Kuebler said she found Newman's work when researching labor issues. Brown's legislative staff confirmed its accuracy, and Brown then signed the staff-prepared letter, Kuebler said.

"We should have cited it, and we didn't," Kuebler said.

Ordinarily I woldn't post about this -- I've reached the point where I'm bored with my own media whoredom. However, this story has some lefty bloggers very annoyed -- including Newman:

Did the Plain Dealer do an in depth analysis of Alito's labor record in response?

No, they created a bullshit meta-story that was of such supposed breaking news value that they couldn't wait for me to get back from my mini-honeymoon to get my reaction.

Duncan "Atrios" Black -- who works at Media Matters, mind you, concurs:

Genuine plagiarism in this context is lifting out paragraphs of unique prose, not culling some information from a blog post.

While I have some sympathy with the idea of reporters focusing on actual policy substance, this is still a completely valid story. Consider this section of Koff's story and compare it with Black's defiinition of plagiarism:

For instance, Newman, an attorney and labor and community activist, posted this on his blog Nov. 1: "What is striking about Alito is that he is so hostile even to the basic rights of workers to have a day in court, much less interpreting the law in their favor."

Brown's letter merely changed the last clause so the sentence read, "What is striking about Alito is that he is so hostile even to the basic rights of workers to have a day in court, not to mention interpreting the law against them."

Brown's letter cited details of 13 rulings by Alito, who in early 2006 will face confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The problem is, Brown's descriptions in 12 of the cases were almost verbatim what Newman wrote on his blog.

This is a case of sloppy staff work in Brown's office and not much more -- but it's still a screw-up, which explains why Brown's office immediately copped to the miscue.

In NRO, Jonah Goldberg notes the special irony of Brown's mistake:

[T]here's a special irony here. I think all reasonable people can agree that plagiarism is a theft of intellectual property. Well, I did a very quick Nexis search and it seems Sherrod Brown's been out front in opposing trade deals because they don't provide enough protections for intellectual property.

UPDATE: Brown has sent another letter to DeWine acknowledging the failure to cite Newman. However, the press release accompanying the letter asserts that, "In coordination with an Ohio newspaper article published Tuesday, DeWine's staff dismissed concerns expressed by Brown in the Nov. 4 letter, instead focusing on citation errors." (emphasis added)

That's an interesting word choice -- Brown is clearly implying that DeWine's staff engineered the story in the first place. I have no idea if this is true or not -- but I'd like to hear of any evidence Brown has to back this up.

posted by Dan on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM


So, can you be charged with stealing someone's (intellectual) property if they have no objection to you taking it?

I think you need to do a bit more work to convince us that this story isn't an utterly silly partisan hit.

posted by: Observer on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

Kudos on your quote- but is this really worth this attention relative to other issues out there right now?

posted by: Rick Latshaw on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

I don't particular agree with Nathan Newman's take on labor issues, but I do agree that the reporter wrote a bullshit story.

""We couldn't decide who to respond to -- the person who sent us the letter or the person who wrote the letter," joked Mike Dawson, DeWine's communications director. "So we decided not to respond to either." "

Man, I tired of bullshit stories from newspapers and bullshit non-answers from politicians and their flunkies.

posted by: Chad on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

Newman misses the point of the story, which was about Sherrod Brown, not Judge Alito. The CPD story mentions that Brown has already filed against Mike DeWine for next year's Senate race in Ohio; Brown's letter makes it appear that he doesn't know enough about labor law issues to write about them without copying what someone else has already written.

This may be true, or may not be. Clearly the letter was a staff production. And a survey of letters written, and floor statements and speeches in committee given by Congressmen and Senators of both parties would probably disclose many, many instances in which language from interest group statements and talking points was repeated verbatim, without credit.

But that hardly lets Brown off the hook. Most Congressional staff are young, but few of them are morons; if they work for a boss who makes clear he cares about this kind of thing not happening, it won't happen. If he doesn't -- if he at least doesn't make clear he doesn't want to look like a doofus, it can.

posted by: Zathras on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

This is a case of sloppy staff work in Brown's office and not much more -- but it's still a screw-up, which explains why Brown's office immediately copped to the miscue.

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

It's called creative writing...

Bush did it on WMD's...

"Am not lieing...Am writing fiction with my mouth."
-Homer Simpson.

posted by: James on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

I have to disagree with you Dan. Here is the "plagiarized" post: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2005/11/1/91136/3637. At the bottom of the page it says this:

" 2005, Kos Media, LLC.
Site content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified."

While a footnote would have been good manners, there is a reason why DailyKos uses the LLC, it wants to be used for this kind of purpose, it wants to generate material that helps the Democrats.

posted by: Mark on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

Members of Congress read and sign things every day written by their staffs as though they themselves had written them, and they virtually never note that fact.

Is there any salient difference between (i) failing to acknowledge that something was written by someone on your staff and (ii) failing to acknowledge that something was written by someone not on your staff (but who expressly stated that he wanted people like you to use it)?

posted by: alkali on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

Daniel-- I was explicitly told by a reporter today that this story was engineered by Mike DeWine's office.

The bottom line is we don't expect politicians to do their own research, so the only question is why it's better if they buy it from a staff person and take credit or use public domain information from a blogger.

It's just hard to see just a big distinction, especially when the campaign readily explains where they got the information when asked.

posted by: Nathan Newman on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]


By that logic, then Bush should is just as responsible for Libby's perjury.

posted by: Rick Latshaw on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

"I think you need to do a bit more work to convince us that this story isn't an utterly silly partisan hit."

It depends on your attitude toward situational ethics, I suppose....

posted by: Mark Poling on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

Boy are you picking nits. If you want to reduce the appearence of impropriety in Congress, this is not the highest payoff place to look.

The point of this post seems to be that both sides do it (cheat in politics). I remember a colleague who left my institution for a bigger job elsewhere. He said about the new job that it was like the old jub, just with a few zeros added (he was the accountant). In Washington today, the Republicans have several zeros on the Democrats: orders of magnitude more badness.

posted by: Jonathan Goodman on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

The "story" here isn't so much that a Congressman plagiarized a posting from a blogger. As others have pointed out, Congressmen sign their names to form letters prepared by their staff members all the time, and nobody really worries about such ghostwriting or the lack of credit given to the true authors.

The real story is that a Congressman tried to pull a political stunt against an upcoming opponent, purely for the purpose of generating publicity, and it backfired. Obviously Brown was not seriously writing to DeWine as a constituent to a Senator, hoping to convince the Senator to oppose Alito's confirmation. Brown released the letter to the press to garner some PR. And that's fine, except that a politician needs to be careful that such a letter will stand up to scrutiny and have the desired effect.

The desired effect was to convince the public that Brown had thought carefully about the Alito nomination and had come up with serious, reasonable objections. Instead Brown was shown to be parroting someone else's objections. Well, the proper way to have done that would be by just citing a link to Nathan Newman's post, or maybe by reprinting Newman's post and including it as an attachment to the letter, or even by quoting a paragraph from Newman as part of an overall exposition of Brown's own thoughts.

So the lack of originality and the lack of attribution on Brown's part when sending out a letter to the media (its real target) becomes the story, and justifiably so. It's not a huge story, but it's certainly an embarrassment for Brown, and a detraction from his image instead of an enhancement.

Newspapers prefer to report on political process rather than substance, and this kind of gaffe is right down their alley.

posted by: Daniel Wiener on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

There is a very important reason Congress critters don't do their own research.

If they get it wrong they have no one to blame but themselves.

posted by: M. Simon on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

More importantly, Jonah is dead wrong that plagiarism is "intellectual property theft." It's simply plagiarism, which is bad manners, and unacceptably bad in an academic context. The idea that we have an innate right to own the expression of our ideas (called droit d'auteur) is not at all the American legal and philosophical tradition - in fact, it's strictly counter to the building block structure of knowledge acquisition.

You, and Jonah, may wonder why we call this right droit d'auteur - I'll give you a guess which country does in fact grant this type of right. So NRO and fair Paris agree on something!

As for trade issues, it's clear that free trade talks don't need to involve IPO. If I were the trade commissioner, every US free trade treaty would be one line long, plus a signature "My country pledges to treat the products produced in your country the same, legally, as products produced in my country." Nearly everything beyond this line in a trade treaty is best classed as anti-free trade.

posted by: cure on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

I agree that this is not a big deal, but I don't understand the notion that this isn't plagiarism just because the original author is not bothered by Brown's not giving him credit. If Newman had granted Brown permission to use the text as his own -- prior to using it -- then Brown would have simply employed a ghost writer. That's NOT what happened. Brown (or more likely his staff) took credit for someone else's text. That's wrong. (On the list of sins, this ranks way down towards the bottom in terms of seriousness. Still, this is not akin to using the wrong fork at dinner.) Nor does it matter that Newman and Kos grant blanket permission to use their material. Consider the young man trying to impress his girl by quoting a Keats love poem. If she asks if he wrote it for her, it's wrong for him to say "Yes" despite the fact Keats won't care and the poem is in the public domain. She's going to give him extra credit for composing it for her and she'll have a right to be upset when she learns he simply cribbed it from Keats. Brown's readers thought that he'd crafted the arguments himself (or directed his staff in writing them). He's trying to bask in Newman's light. They have every right to feel mislead when they learn Brown simply copied Newman's work.

The sad thing is the kid trying to impress his girl would have gotten nearly as much mileage out of the truth: "No, it's by Keats, but it's special to me because it captures how I feel about you." Brown, too, could have simply said, "I have great concerns about this nomination. My concerns were well captured by N. Newman. What follows, with Newman's permission, is what he wrote as edited by me for length and content."

posted by: David Walser on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

This has got to be the silliest "story/controversy" of the year. If this is plagirism, how exactly would you decsribe presidents and politicians who read speeches written sometime wholly by their speak writers with very little imput from them, besides the fact that they agree with the sentiments expressed in the speaches.

posted by: Urbannomad on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

The young lover is trying to appear both romantic and a wordsmith. Brown isn't trying to appear to be a legal scholar, he's trying to draw attention to specific issues.

posted by: yoyo on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

So, Dan, when all the right wing flacks and talking heads from David Brooks to John Gibson to Bill Kristol start using the same words and phrases at about the same time, are they plagiarizing? They certainly aren't expressing their own original thoughts.

Should Kristol get on Fox News and preface his comments by attributing them to the fax he got from the RNC? Should he attribute them to Ken Mehlman, or Karl Rove?

That'd be kind of fun, actually. It'd really illustrate the lack of independent thought on the right wing.

posted by: Jon H on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

Hey Dan,

Are these people all plagiarists?

(video from The Daily Show)

posted by: Jon H on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

In my country this is just plain dishonesty.
And if it was a journalist making it will be on the street the day after.

posted by: lucklucky on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

Nathan Newman has a post upthread in which he relates his being told by a journalist that "...this story was engineered by Mike DeWine's office."

Well, let's see. The letter itself was released by Sherrod Brown. So, the extent of the "engineering" appears to be that DeWine's office noticed the similarity of Brown's language with Newman's, and tipped off the CPD.

Mike Dawson does DeWine's press; he's been around a long time in Ohio politics, and probably has at least 25 CPD reporters and staff on his speed dial. The above certainly sounds to me like something he would do. It also sounds like something I would do.

That's politics. You don't like it, find another hobby. If Sherrod Brown doesn't like it, he needs to stop being a doofus; doing press without copying someone else's language is not that hard, and if you can't do it you probably shouldn't be doing press and certainly shouldn't be running for the Senate.

posted by: Zathras on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

"We couldn't decide who to respond to -- the person who sent us the letter or the person who wrote the letter," joked Mike Dawson, DeWine's communications director. "So we decided not to respond to either."

In my country this is called not answering the question. Which is also standard operating procedures in America today.

posted by: Chad on 11.08.05 at 04:02 PM [permalink]

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