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Ms. Dowd Sort Of Regrets

I have plagiarized. Once.

And it was inadvertent.

That can happen. At the time, I thought I had changed my own prose enough so that it didn't read like the sources it came from but I hadn't and also, I had no original sources -- only the ones I offered in my bibliography.

It was many years ago.

I was desperate for money and very young (this is not a defense, but a description).  Assigned by a small publisher to write two little books about historical figures for sums that seemed to me huge, and given six weeks to write them, I leaped at the change to produce originally researched biographies of Jane Addams and Henry Hudson.

Jane Addams was easy.

I had spent my childhood down the street from Hull House, which was, essentially, the world's first daycare center for the children of working parents. Addams was the most illustrious graduate of a college I also briefly attended and material about the woman called the founder of modern social work teemed from libraries and biographies, as well as period interviews with the woman herself.

Henry Hudson was another matter.

I scoured the library (there was no ubiqutous Web then, with nearly a million different hits on the explorer about whom not very much at all is known, from his birth date to the manner of his death). I found three historical journal articles, an encyclopedia entry six inches long and a book aimed at middle-schoolers -- which was exactly what I was supposed to be writing. 

Time was running out. I panicked.

I wrote what I thought I could and was ashamed of it. But there didn't seem to be a new way to describe the torturous exploration that ended with the "discovery" of Hudson Bay and the disappearance of Hudson. There was more in print about the bridge, the bay and the river valley named for the man than about the man.

My editor wisely found another writer who knew better how to locate Henry Hudson scholars and rework the material, which did not, utlimately, appear under my name. My editor also was gracious and kind and explained to me how I had lifted the sense, if not the precise wording, from the middle-grade book.  Thanks to that man, I learned a lesson I never forgot -- although there are so many times I wish I could.

But that little book didn't win a Pulitzer Prize and by gosh, I seem not to have won one of those at all. I guess a Pulitzer Prize presumes originality and honesty -- although the stain of plagiarism seems to run strong through the ranks of the elite.

It seems that Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Maureen Dowd last week plaigarized a paragraph of analysis written (and only days earlier!) by a well-known blogger, Talking Point Memo's Josh Marshall. It was about the use of torture by American troops and operatives during the Bush years.

Marshall wrote, "More and more, the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq." 

Dowd wrote exactly the same thing. Except this: She changed the words "we were" to "the Bush crowd was," preserving that waggish insider style of hers, which takes no prisoners. Until now.

The explanation seemed a bit strained and unworthy of such a sharp tack as Maureen Dowd: She blamed a friend. She declined to interview the friend. The friend, allegedly, related this piece of analysis to Dowd at a party -- in these exact words. Dowd wanted to weave that insight into a column. The friend failed to point out someone had written this piece of analysis down.

Now, as a friend of mine -- I'd be glad to name her -- pointed out to me recently, she has the kind of memory that could probably reproduce 43 words with more than 90% accuracy. I do, too, to the pain and amusement of some of my friends. And my son, Robert, is possessed of an even more amazing ididic memory than mine or my e-pal's. But Maureen Dowd's friend beats all.

Which makes the whole thing a bit like three-day fish. The order of the wording -- especially the unusual and sort of elegant phrasing, including "what was essentially political information" -- belies the heard-it-at-the-buffet story.

Responding to an email from The Huffington Post, Dowd supposedly said she "wanted" to apologize to Marshall and the her newspaper would make a fix and issue an apology.

So, is that that?

That must be that.

There have been a few blogs and a column or two but Maureen Dowd is powerful and respected and mistakes will happen.


Is that all there is?

I can't and I surely won't call the kettle black but there is a point here that seems worth making.

I don't think Maureen Dowd is the lazy sort. I don't think she's sloppy either. I think she fibbed either because she got the impression that her track record and many blue ribbons set her apart from the hoi-polloi. It does seem that those most prey to produce even by using someone else's thoughs (and punctuation) are young and under intense pressure and subjtect to constant expectation pressed on the young -- e.g. Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. Or they are veterans, subject because of their lustre to intense pressure and exhaustion -- e.g. war horses such as Dan Rather and the late, beloved Molly Ivins. 

Despite her lovely legs and enviable wit, Ms. Dowd, depite being an A-lister at the best parties and privy to the best bits of received wisdom, falls into the latter category. And despite her track record, she stumbles.

I don't know why.

Maybe she's done her job venerably but for too long.

Maybe she's got years of great and honest work ahead and had a hangover.

Maybe that paragraph was only cribbed with permission from a "friend" at a party who really WAS gifted with a Truman-Capote quality memory.

But wouldn't a good friend, rather than choosing to remain nameless (is the FRIEND in the CIA? Or a married actor? Or Josh Marshall's mom?) pop up and say, well, gosh, I was the one! Here I was trying to sound all intellectual at that party and it's not Maureen's fault at all that I didn't attribute that bit of philosophy to Josh Marshall?

Wouldn't anyone do that for a pal? If there really was anyone?

Do we all get together and decide that yeah, there probably was no friend but it's okay?

I'm sure this is stone-cold news by now. It happened while I was on a sailboat and I wouldn't even have heard about it ever except for a single e-mail from a friend -- one e-mail among 200 -- when I got back.

Should it be just no big deal except to cranky people?

You know, I just don't think so.

I think the fact that Ms. Dowd regrets is not enough.

The woman who once publicly pilloried author Joyce Maynard as a "leech woman in love" for writing about Maynard's own deeply strange and troubling teenage relationship with J.D. Salinger -- as if Joyce's right to her own life was less important than Salinger's quite sick and fabled reclusiveness -- should do more than offer offhand regret. 

For that sword of hers cuts both ways.

Doesn't it?

If it does, Maureen Dowd  shouldn't be acting so casual-like.

She should get down on one knee and cry and pound the earth and tell everyone how this really happened and why it will never happen again -- more or less as Doris Kearns Goodwin did when she took one of her researchers' prose as original work and lived to regret it.

Or she should take her name off that column as my editor took my name off that book -- a moment that shames me to my core nearly twenty-five years later.

Or she should quit.

The press may not be what it was but if it's not grounded with both feet in honest reportage, it will never be more than sleazy punditry -- on the order of Ann Coulter, who lifts what she likes with abandon and in the name of God and country.

Journalism may be a shambles now but I still hope it's not on the way to being a sham.

You wouldn't let your kid get away with this. I wouldn't let my kid get away with this. Your kid's school wouldn't let the kid  get away with this. Kids with bright futures get expelled for this.

I don't care how terrific your brain is -- or your bod -- or how stacked is your Rolodex with luscious sources. I don't care how quick you are with a rapier phrase.

When you get your butt stuck in the door, you don't blame the door.


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I don't know what that sentence means either

The one about pressure on the young writer. This is what results from writing in the dark. I'm on an island and there's no electricity and I'm not making that up.