Juan Williams Caught Plagiarizing, Blames Researcher

Columnist and frequent Fox News talking head Juan Williams is the latest person to be caught plagiarizing, and his explanation reveals again an unspoken truth about many major columnists:

In a case of apparent plagiarism, Fox News pundit Juan Williams lifted — sometimes word for word — from a Center for American Progress report, without ever attributing the information, for a column he wrote last month for the Hill newspaper.

Almost two weeks after publication, the column was quietly revised online, with many of the sections rewritten or put in quotation marks, and this time citing the CAP report. It also included an editor’s note that read: “This column was revised on March 2, 2013, to include previously-omitted attribution to the Center for American Progress.”

But that editor’s note mentions only the attribution problem, and not the nearly identical wording that was also fixed.

In a phone interview Thursday evening, Williams pinned the blame on a researcher who he described as a “young man.”

“I was writing a column about the immigration debate and had my researcher look around to see what data existed to pump up this argument and he sent back what I thought were his words and summaries of the data,” Williams told Salon. “I had never seen the CAP report myself, so I didn’t know that the young man had in fact not summarized the data but had taken some of the language from the CAP report.”

Hugo Gurdon, the editor in chief of the Hill, told Salon on Thursday evening that: “CAP drew the similarities between Juan’s column and their report to my attention and I spoke to Juan about it. He went back and looked at the two and spoke to me having had a look and acknowledged there were unacceptable similarities.

“And he gave me an explanation, which I found satisfactory. And I believe there was an honest mistake and it related to the transfer of copy and the use of a researcher and it was completely inadvertent. He was very concerned to set the record straight.

“All parties — CAP, the Hill and Juan — were satisfied that we had not dramatically changed the column after the fact to conceal what had happened.”

Williams told Salon that the researcher has submitted a letter of resignation, but that he has not decided whether to accept it. “I just feel betrayed,” Williams said.

Williams isn’t the only major columnists to rely on researchers, of course. Indeed, there often seems to be an over reliance on such people by pundits who have their fingers on a number of projects. In the end, of course, Williams is responsible for what goes out under his name, but this doesn’t strike me as a career-ending type of story for him. Perhaps in the future, though, he and others will learn to be just a little more careful about what they accept from others. In the age of Google, it’s not that hard to find out if something has been lifted from another source.

UPDATE (James Joyner): Paul Waldman has a good take at TAP:

What he actually got caught doing was an act of double plagiarism, even though only one of the acts of plagiarism is considered problematic. After all, plagiarism is taking someone else’s words and passing them off as your own without attribution. Williams does that whenever his assistant writes something for him that then appears verbatim in his column, which from his explanation sounds like something he does regularly. It’s just that this time, his assistant passed off CAP’s words as his own to Williams, and Williams then passed off CAP’s words as his own to his readers, when he thought he was only passing off his assistant’s words as his own, which otherwise nobody would know about.

I suppose that many of the biggest of big-time columnists have research assistants, though I’m not really sure. After all, someone needs to look up obscure quotes from the Federalist Papers for George Will (and imagine if there’s actually an intern transcribing the insights of Bangalore cab drivers on Tom Friedman’s behalf). If I’m ever offered a New York Times column and become fabulously well-paid for doing basically the same thing I do now, but I also have to fit in the writing between appearances on Meet the Press and lucrative speeches to the likes of the National Grommet Council, maybe then I’ll hire a research assistant. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with having an assistant who doesn’t just do research for you but actually writes prose that you then present as your own, even if it’s only a paragraph here and there. When you’re a writer and articles go out under your byline, your readers believe that the words are yours. If one week your assistant wrote half your column, then he should get credit for it, not only because he deserves it, but because otherwise, you’re deceiving your readers. Just a line at the bottom saying “This column was prepared with the assistance of Jimmy Olsen” could be enough. If you can’t manage to write your own words, then you should get into another line of work.

A goodly number of very famous public intellectuals, including the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Fareed Zakaria, Arnaud de Borchgrave, and Stephen Ambrose have been caught red handed in recent years. Essentially, these people become brands rather than writers and staff out a lot of their work. Most op-eds “written” by major public figures are actually written by their staffs. And, of course, almost all speeches given by the rich and powerful.

FILED UNDER: Media, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. wr says:

    Of course, the only way this explanation — which I’m sure is valid — makes sense is if Williams routinely takes work written solely by his “researchers” and publishes it as his own.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @wr: I’m sure he does. As I note in the update, it’s standard practice in the industry–especially for the celebrity pundits who double as TV talking heads and give expensive speeches. They cease to be journalists and become brands.

  3. matt bernius says:

    @wr:
    For better or worse, relying on under-researcher’s and staff writers work is a very common practice in multiple professions.

    From Presidents getting credit for speeches written by staffers, to professors relying on research assistants, to judges relying on their clerks work for decisions (and those clerks relying on the briefs submitted by various parties), to ghost written books, the list goes on and on. Don’t even get me started on comic books (looking at you Bob Kane).

    It’s one of the reasons why post-modernists go after the idea of the “solitary” author.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    No, he is not plagiarizing his research assistant so long as the contract between them establishes Williams’ ownership of the assistant’s work product.

    This was a minor attribution error. I just missed committing it in a recent book, and it was only because I had months for the nagging feeling that I’d forgotten something to finally surface.

    Look first to simple error, then start looking to malice if you have some evidence of same. Not every mistake is a crime.

  5. matt bernius says:

    A more “kind” take on the use of researchers is that these people work in high output, content driven industries. And to maintain a certain level of output, they need to have a staff in place. And historically, the practice hasn’t been to highlight the work of the staff.

    For example, how long did it take Andrew Sullivan to give regular credit to his underwriters? And last I checked Ezra Klien has multiple researchers who are not typically credited in stories. Now neither hides the fact they have researchers. And likewise, its assumed that both significantly contribute to the final product. But we have no way of knowing how much of the work (or words) are theirs — especially since a good underwriter learns to write in the tone of the person they are working for.

    BTW, is this all that much different that big name comedians who have joke writers? Or talk show hosts who have writing/research staff?

    @michael reynolds:

    No, he is not plagiarizing his research assistant so long as the contract between them establishes Williams’ ownership of the assistant’s work product.

    BINGO – Work for hire!

  6. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I think it’s a fine line. It’s perfectly fine to have a research assistant do research for you. But I agree with Waldman that passing of his work as your own in what’s supposed to be an opinion column written by you crosses the line.

    There may be a different line in a novel. Especially in series books, it’s been common practice for years to have staffers write bits and pieces and for the named author(s) to weave them together. But at some point it essentially becomes a deception of the reader. Some series switch to “created by” in tiny print, at least tacitly acknowledging that the named authors aren’t writing the books anymore.

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I find it somewhat hilarious, actually, that an airheaded dolt like Williams uses a researcher for his fluff opinion pieces. It’s sort of like a pro wrestler using a speech writer. Even more so I find it amusing — in the sense of tragic irony — that Williams and his fellow talking heads are so well compensated for their nonsensical musings. I mean, come on, Williams has a philosphy degree from Haverdord College. He has no actual experience anywhere outside of the media. Yet not only is he famous he’s rich too. It speaks volumes for why we’re in such dire straits. The blind leading the deaf, dumb and blind. The slow leading the catatonic.

    In any event, from a personal standpoint I come from a different world — one where it actually matters to paying clients what you write, and where the people who review what you write have the power to issue orders that carry the weight of the law — and in that world you can have 20 people doing research for you, but ultimately if your name is on that paper then you’re responsible for the contents thereof. C’est la vie.

    As far as Williams is concerned, this won’t harm him in the slightest. By tomorrow it’ll be forgotten. Demographically he’s untouchable, obviously. And to a large extent his audience consists of lemmings.

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Haverford, that is. Sort of a self-parody, in a sense. I probably should get someone to write my comments for me.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think if Williams has offended anyone it’s his assistant, and the nature of that relationship will be (or should be) spelled out in the contract.

    Different novelists have different lines. We had some of our earlier series ghosted with our name on the cover and the ghost acknowledged inside. And we never pretended they weren’t ghosted. There’s a list of our ghosts on Wikipedia.

    I’ve now started a packaging company (ie: ghostwritten books) but it’s for off-brand ideas, things that aren’t in my genre and won’t profit from my name. We’ll use pseudonyms in most cases and I’ll retain ownership of copyright, while sharing revenue. But all of that is in the contract.

  10. wr says:

    @matt bernius: “A more “kind” take on the use of researchers is that these people work in high output, content driven industries. ”

    And yet, their only involvement with the content is to put their names on it.

    I’m not naive — I’ve done plenty of work for hire. But when you can’t even be bothered to write (or read) your own columns, then why should anyone bother with you? There’s a big difference between “Hey, Alfonse, get me statistics on this subject so I can write about it” and “Hey, Alfonse, get some statistics and then figure out something to say about them.”

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s perfectly fine to have a research assistant do research for you. But I agree with Waldman that passing of his work as your own in what’s supposed to be an opinion column written by you crosses the line.

    I have to say, if I was working as a research asst. for a writer who never acknowledged my contributions to his work, i would probably feel “What a d!ck.” It is like when I build a really fine piece of cabinetry for a specific one of a kind installation and the contractor comes in and tells the owner, “I built that.”

    No you didn’t d!ckhead, you just had the good sense to hire me to do it for you.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    I’m leery of jumping to plagiarism accusations. I’ve had people ask me whether I ripped off Stephen King because of similarities between a book he published in 2010 and a book I published in 2009. That whole time space thing confuses some people.

  13. mantis says:

    Most op-eds “written” by major public figures are actually written by their staffs. And, of course, almost all speeches given by the rich and powerful.

    And the not as rich and powerful, too. How many university presidents do you think write their own speeches? Not many, I assure you.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: I believe that that “dolt” you speak of, Juan Williams, attended Haverford – not “Haverdord.”

  15. grumpy realist says:

    Hmm. If I were writing an opinion column, the absolute maximum I would have a R.A. do is look up a particular statistic. And I’d probably double-check that anyhow.

    As it is, Juan has ended up with egg all over his face due to his laziness and everyone laughing at him. Instant karma.

  16. MBunge says:

    I’d tend to go with michael reynolds as to this incident being not that big a deal, but I think Joyner is onto something with his reference to people becoming “brands” rather than writers. Branding is really just monetizing your work and yourself in ever more aggressive and expansive ways and there is a point where you become more about the brand than about what you originally did that was worth branding.

    Mike

  17. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: Fair enough. Readers might be somewhat disappointed but I think that, for a long series of formulaic novels, the expectation is that they’re getting the character continuity moreso than the author’s work. In that way, it’s like episodic television.

    I’ve always viewed political op-eds differently than that, thinking that they ought to be the sole writing work of the columnist. I don’t mind that they have researchers don’t fact digging for them but think the 800 words should be theirs.

  18. Anonne says:

    Hello, ghostwriting is not a new concept.

  19. Wr says:

    @James Joyner: in episodic television, we credit the writers of the episodes.

  20. James Joyner says:

    @Wr: Yes, that’s true. But only the true geeks pay attention to the writer credit. For the most part, regular viewers think of a show as being the product of the producer, especially if he’s the concept creator. Gene Roddenbury didn’t write that much of “Star Trek”—and he had some legendary screenwriters—but we think of it as his. Similarly, we tend to think of “West Wing” as Aaron Sorkin’s, even though he didn’t have much to do with the last couple of seasons. The fans are more concerned about the plots and character continuity than who did the actual writing.

    Conversely, I maintain that, if I’m reading a column by Juan Williams or George Will or Charles Krauthammer or Maureen Dowd or Thomas Friedman, I expect that the words and ideas are theirs. The column isn’t supposed to be serial entertainment but rather a personal expression.

  21. wr says:

    @James Joyner: I agree with you entirely about columnists, and that’s why I find Williams’ excuse so laughable. I get the idea of branding, but in the olden days, a brand had to be based on something — in the case of opinion columnists, a set of opinions. But Williams is too busy marketing his brand to worry about little things like its basis.