Biden Not Only Democrat Lifting Language for Websites

The original 'scandal' was silly. The follow-up is sillier.

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Revelations that the climate change plan on Joe Biden’s website used wording from other sites without giving credit have prompted POLITICO to search other candidates’ sites to see if they’d done the same thing. To no one’s surprise, they have. But the reporters were a bit too eager to make their point.

A sampling of policy proposals from Biden’s leading rivals suggests the lifting of direct text from academic papers, think tanks or policy institutes — and the cribbing of facts without attribution — is fairly widespread on 2020 campaign websites.

A POLITICO review found previously published material on the official campaign websites of Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, as well as frequent use of facts and data without citation on a number of others.

— “It’s not just Biden: Multiple Democrats lift material from other sites

Again, this isn’t shocking. But some of the examples are . . . strained.

“More than 1 million women in America today have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner,” Harris writes under the gender equality section of her website.

Everytown, the gun safety group, has a remarkably similar line on its own site, with one minor difference in scale: “Nearly 1 million women alive today have been shot, or shot at, by an intimate partner.”

That’s not plagiarism. It’s a statistic. And one imagines one so commonly cited by the gun control lobby as to be considered “common knowledge.”

Harris’ website also notes that “Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.”

That language is identical to phrasing found on the American Heart Association website — minus the attribution: “Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

That’s a little closer to plagiarism, but, again, just a statistic.

In the voting rights section of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s website, the language echoes President Barack Obama. “Americans should not have to jump through hoops to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” the text reads.

Obama had used a similar metaphor in 2014 when he said that “no citizen, including our servicemembers, should have to jump through hoops to exercise their most fundamental right.”

That’s a banal platitude, not plagiarism.

In a Medium post in March, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker lamented that “the punishing reality is that there are more African American men under criminal supervision today than there were enslaved in 1850” — an idea expressed in a Vox headline when singer John Legend raised it in a 2015 Oscar speech.

The actual source of the factoid appears to be Michelle Alexander, the author of the 2010 book “The New Jim Crow” and the subject of a piece titled “More Black Men Are In Prison Today Than Were Enslaved In 1850.”

I’d say John Legend having cited it in an Oscar speech essentially puts it into the “common knowledge” category.

As an academic, I’d be annoyed if students didn’t cite their sources here. I’d perhaps dock them for sloppiness. But I wouldn’t challenge their integrity, much less report them for plagiarism.

Because of my training, my inclination in running one of these websites would be to hyperlink the hell out of them. Not because I’d want to avoid charges of plagiarism (unless, of course, I was running Biden’s site) but because I think citing sources strengthens the argument and gives readers more confidence.

The campaigns and the experts POLITICO spoke with about their findings echo points made in my piece yesterday:

Echoing Biden’s campaign, the campaigns contacted for this story insisted that the examples weren’t instances of plagiarism or inappropriate lifting as much as the citing of data that are relatively well-known among activists.

“These are statistics,” Harris spokesman Ian Sams said.
Indeed, Everytown sounded a note of gratitude for Harris’ use of its gun stats, even though the group wasn’t cited.

“Everytown makes resources about gun safety public so that all Americans can use them,” spokeswoman Stacey Radnor said. “We are thrilled to see candidates base their gun safety platforms on research and facts to bring attention to our nation’s gun violence crisis that kills 100 Americans and wounds hundreds more every day.”

In the case of O’Rourke’s use of language similar to President Obama’s, spokesman Chris Evans noted that the expression “‘jump through hoops’ is a common idiom.”

“As much as we admire President Obama, we didn’t pull up an arbitrary 2014 statement of his from the archives while creating our historic voting rights plan nearly five years later,” Evans said. “Voting is a fundamental right because it’s enshrined in the Constitution and has been fought for by Americans across our country in the centuries that followed.”

Deborah R. Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor and expert in copyright and plagiarism, said she saw no transgressions by the candidates in any of the above examples. She said context matters, and it’s clear that the candidates, including Biden, are relying on other people’s facts and not pretending that a unique expression of someone else’s work is their own.

“I don’t consider this plagiarism. I don’t see them saying, ‘This is my data’,” Gerhardt said.

“When you have a political candidate repeating statistics from another source, I don’t think people think the politicians did their own data analysis.

“These are politicians and people expect that they’re relying on a study or other facts. Don’t we want our politicians to listen to people who are doing research or collecting data and tell the public about it?”

Indeed.

To the extent anyone but me is paying attention to this non-story, perhaps it will shed a little light into how policy platforms get put together. While you’d think top-tier candidates like Biden would have leading experts in their fields write policy proposals, it seems like they mostly have staffers pull ideas from various ideologically compatible sites and cobble them together. That’s perhaps more damning than any low-level plagiarism going on.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jen says:

    While you’d think top-tier candidates like Biden would have leading experts in their fields write policy proposals

    Having worked on campaigns, albeit at state and not federal levels, I feel somewhat confident in saying that most candidates are not going to shell out the many thousands of dollars it would cost to pull together website policy statements by engaging a “leading expert” in a field who would (understandably) want to be paid for original writing and research.

    Politico should be embarrassed by that article. This is a non-story.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Jen: One would imagine Biden has top-level former government officials on the team hoping to be appointed to a more senior post in his administration. I know that happens in foreign policy/national security policy.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: I feel like it’s too early in the campaigns to expect that kind of professionalism. Time enough to do that when things get real. Right now everything is hurried, just trying to show where they stand on issues. Hyper linking the hell out of these policy proposals would be a good idea, it would show they aren’t pulling this shit out of their ass, unlike their presumed Republican opponent..

  4. Kathy says:

    Where does it make sense not to cite attributions? If a paper mentions the Law of Identity, does it need to say it originated with Aristotle? Or is a philosophical principle millennia old general knowledge?

  5. Timothy Watson says:

    Because of my training, my inclination in running one of these websites would be to hyperlink the hell out of them. Not because I’d want to avoid charges of plagiarism (unless, of course, I was running Biden’s site) but because I think citing sources strengthens the argument and gives readers more confidence.

    Except that no politician wants readers of their website clicking on hyperlinks that take them off of their site.

  6. Jen says:

    @James Joyner: Sure, but most of that type of work/level of effort will come much later, either once the primary field has thinned a bit (or a lot), or once the nomination has been secured.

    At this stage, candidates in the primary don’t need to have that level of depth. It’d be a dumb waste of money, IMHO. I’ve noted this before, campaigns have a cadence.

    Put another way, if Biden did do this work up front and then has a disastrous debate performance or two, or something else happens, it would be a serious waste of effort. What candidates need right now are: a functioning website with 1) donation capability, 2) volunteer registration, 3) biographical info/this is who I am and my core values, and 4) broad policy statements/this is why I am running. Candidates should be raising money, getting to know voters, and signing up ground troops at this point in the primary.

    In-depth policy can, and should, wait.

  7. Kylopod says:

    “There is no black America or white America or Asian America, there is the United States of America.” — Obama

    “There is no Dana, only Zuul.” — Ghostbusters

    Plagiarist!

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Jen:

    Put another way, if Biden did do this work up front and then has a disastrous debate performance or two, or something else happens, it would be a serious waste of effort. What candidates need right now are: a functioning website with 1) donation capability, 2) volunteer registration, 3) biographical info/this is who I am and my core values, and 4) broad policy statements/this is why I am running. Candidates should be raising money, getting to know voters, and signing up ground troops at this point in the primary.

    Yes, that makes sense.

  9. al Ameda says:

    While it’s true that Biden and many others should know better, it is also true that with the campaign and election of Trump there are a slew of previously normal transgressions and normal bad behavior that do not seem matter now. Although ….

    That said, I’m sure that most people will probably hold Biden and most ‘normal’ candidates to the older standard and Trump will continue to get a pass from his supporters.

    The new rule – ‘Bad Behavior Does Not Matter Now’ probably applies to Trump only.

  10. Kathy says:

    @al Ameda:

    The new rule – ‘Bad Behavior Does Not Matter Now’ probably applies to Trump only.

    Oh, no. It applies to a few other Republicans, so long as they kiss Dennison’s orange ass.

    as to Democrats, or dissident Republicans even (if any), the rule is “Anything short of the highest standards of behavior, such that would shame a saint or even Jesús, justify everything el Cheeto has done, is doing, or will ever do, for all time.”