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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:35 PM ET, 05/16/2012

Washington Times columnist: Originality deficit?


Arnaud de Borchgrave, right, with former ambassador Walt Cutler this month at Cafe Milano. (Rebecca D'Angelo - For The Washington Post)
Arnaud de Borchgrave has a career of distinction to go with journalism’s coolest name. He is a former top editor of the Washington Times (1985-1991), and his work overseas dates to 1947, when he became United Press International’s Brussels bureau chief at the age of 21. These days he serves as director of the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and he lists his regional specialties as Afghanistan, the Middle East, Pakistan, South Asia and Western Europe. He is also the Washington Times’ editor-at-large.

The Bechamel sauce on de Borchgrave’s résumé is his weekly columnizing for the Washington Times and UPI. The topics reflect his think-tank work — heavy on geopolitics and terrorism. Of his columnar bona fides, de Borchgrave writes, “Both Sen. Chuck Hagel and Marvin Kalb have described me in recent e-mails as the best American columnist in print today.”

Perhaps not the most original, however. Parts of his oeuvre appear to borrow occasionally from others’ pieces on the same topic, without attribution.

The following are some side-by-side comparisons, including explanations provided to me by de Borchgrave on the provenance of the language in question:

1) In a May 9 de Borchgrave column, titled “Realism and reality in Afghanistan.” one passage reads:

“Pakistan’s army commander Gen. Khalid Rabbani even accused the U.S. of seeking to make Pakistan the scapegoat for the U.S. failure to defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.”

A day earlier, the Associated Press published these words:

“In a sign of the bad blood between Washington and Islamabad, Lt. Gen. Khalid Rabbani also accused the U.S. of seeking to make Pakistan a scapegoat for its failure to beat the insurgency in Afghanistan.”

De Borchgrave Explanation: “ ‘Even accused’ and ‘also accused’ are both what happened, as is the rest of the sentence. As I recall, it came from my Pakistani associate Ammar Turabi and from the Pakistani English-language papers I read daily. I assume the AP, which I seldom read online, picked it up originally from Pakistani news sources.”

When pressed on this question and notified of de Borchgrave’s statement, AP spokesman Paul Colford wrote Wednesday via e-mail, “The AP story was not picked up from other sources. The story was based on an interview given to AP, specifically to AP Pakistan Bureau Chief Chris Brummit, as the story makes clear.”

2) On Jan. 3, a de Borchgrave column for UPI, titled “Youth Bulge,” dealt with the emerging world of social networks and the like. It contains this passage:

“Facebook is the global 900-pound gorilla of social media networks. It reaches 55 percent of the world’s global audience, accounting for roughly 75 percent of time spent on social networking sites. That’s one in every seven minutes spent online all over the world (comScore’s 10/11 data indicate).”

A week earlier, the site ClickZ.com had posted an item titled “10 Social Media 2011 Highlights (Data Included),” which included this passage:

“Facebook remains the global 900-pound gorilla of social media networks. Facebook reached 55 percent of the world’s global audience accounting for roughly 75 percent of time spent on social networking sites and one in every seven minutes spent online globally according to comScore’s October 2011 data.”

De Borchgrave Explanation: “As I recall, there was a social media conference where I picked this up and received thanks from one of the sponsors.”

Anna Maria Virzi, executive editor of ClickZ.com, had this to say about de Borchgrave’s writing. “It sucks. It just sucks. I mean, come on,” Virzi said. “The author appears to be lazy and I can’t believe that he could not research this himself and even rewrite a little bit more of this so it doesn’t look so obvious.”

3) In the Jan. 3 column, de Borchgrave writes about tech guy Jason Hiner:

“In 2011, he went on a strictly vegan diet, dropped 25 pounds and was surprised to learn how good normal could feel.”

An index for Jason Hiner’s blog has this line (Jan. 2): “In 2011 I went to a strictly vegan diet, dropped 25 pounds, and was surprised to learn how good normal could feel. Here’s the story.”

De Borchgrave Explanation: “What’s the problem? If memory serves, [it came from] a blog.”

Hiner notes, “I’m not overly offended that he lifted that line and slightly rewrote it, and he said a few nice things and pointed to my personal site so that’s great.”

In an interview, de Borchgrave opened up about how he pieces his columns together. The process starts with massive news consumption: He reads eight newspapers a day. “I pick things up and make notes of different things and then use them in my column,” says de Borchgrave. When asked directly about the similarities between some of his writings and those of others, de Borchgrave responds, “I can’t believe you are asking me these questions.”

The way he sees things, de Borchgrave is the victim of literary borrowing, not the agent: “I’ve been in this business for 62 years. People have used stuff that I have constantly.”

By de Borchgrave’s count, he has done more than 2,000 columns since leaving the editorship of the Washington Times in 1991. Based on Nexis, de Borchgrave generally writes a single column that both appears in the Washington Times and is distributed by UPI. Both outlets are among the Unification Church’s media holdings.

In the first quarter of 2012, however, de Borchgrave’s byline all but disappeared from the Times. Asked why, he responded, “Book writing, which I am continuing this summer.” What’s the book? “Hopefully you understand some books are confidential until publication,” he noted.

Since his return to the Times on March 29, he has resumed his weekly Thursday column.

De Borchgrave’s approach to aggregation and attribution seemed like a topic worth putting before his editor. But de Borchgrave says, “I don’t have an editor.” He did concede that the paper’s top editor, Ed Kelley, would “have the right to call me about anything.” Yet de Borchgrave says he’s never had a conversation with a supervisor on attribution.

Kelley didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

By  |  04:35 PM ET, 05/16/2012

 
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