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.