The news reports about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s early plagiarism have been followed first by entirely true assertions that his greatness as a leader has not been tarnished, and then by an uncharacteristic silence (though Time's Lance Morrow takes an unconventional approach this week by lamenting that King had chosen such banal passages to copy). The weekly newspaper of record in the scholarly world, the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers some academic and editorial background of interest, reported by Chris Raymond in the Nov. 21 issue.

The rumor of identical passages in King's doctoral thesis and the works of others was about to find its way into print during the summer in an article for the right-wing cultural monthly Chronicles. The editor, Thomas Fleming, and author, John Shelton Reed, had reason to believe the facts would be public by the time the June issue appeared. In the piece, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education's account, Reed urged King's alma mater, Boston University, to withdraw his PhD and substitute it with an honorary degree for his life's work, thus leaving him with the doctoral honorific. Before its general publication, the essay drew a sharp warning from Boston University. Not wanting to be the skunk at the garden party, Reed withdrew his column. The news eventually was broken by the Wall Street Journal.

This issue of the Chronicle represents a convergence of stories of interest outside higher education: Scott Heller's exploration of how disputes over "political correctness" -- the left being the enforcers and the right the whiners -- are getting in the way of scholarship and teaching; Colleen Cordes' story on the looming age of limits in scientific research; Ellen K. Coughlin's survey of the new writing, and fresh arguments, about how the American West should be remembered.

Fun in Games The December issue of Wigwag is notable for its extraordinary cover, a black-and-white photograph by Andrew Brucker of an astonishing gentleman making an astonishing face. Inside -- and no relation -- the holiday centerpiece is John Sedgwick's long report on the Games Gang, an insurgent game company whose research-and-development chief, Angelo Longo, sifts through mountains of submissions, most of them redundant or unusable, from hopeful game inventors.

Longo keeps at it, Sedgwick writes, "because he knows that, uniquely to the board-games business, the real blockbusters, the ones that set the industry on its ear, come from nowhere. Monopoly, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, and Pictionary -- all the biggest hits of the century have been invented by rank amateurs with one great idea. And since that one idea can be worth hundreds of millions the Gang would like to get its mitts on the next one."

There follows a tour of the modern games industry; the Gang, with seven employees in a Manhattan loft, is no Milton Bradley, no Parker Bros. But its clever ideas and guerrilla marketing have made its best-selling Pictionary and other "verbal, socially interactive" games hot items among verbal, socially interactive jousters. The excellent subplot here is Sedgwick's own hankering to try out his idea for the Editing Game ("the game of rude simplifications"), in which teams compete to ruthlessly pare down famous passages.

Castro Convertible A riddle: Even as Latin America is rediscovering the virtues of democratic government and the free marketplace, why is Fidel Castro, the champion of discredited systems and a regional bully for decades, winning unprecedented respect as a continental statesman?

For one thing, writes Mark Falcoff in the November-December issue of the American Enterprise, Castro has changed his tune. "The number one problem of Latin America is not the construction of socialism. The number one problem of Latin America is the independence and sovereignty of the Latin American countries," he told a Brazilian journalist recently.

In Falcoff's analysis, "having long since mortgaged his political fortunes to a now-bankrupt Soviet model, Castro seems to be reverting -- to be sure, for external consumption only -- to an earlier version of his political persona ... the precommunist Fidel Castro who toured South America just after his victory in 1959."

Falcoff, the American Enterprise Institute's resident fire-breather on Latin American affairs, clearly is frustrated that Castro has succeeded in reinventing himself. "Even conservative Latins secretly admire the way the Cuban dictator has raised his country -- under the circumstances, a rather unimportant Caribbean island -- to the status of a quasi-world power. Of course, they know that to accomplish this the Cuban people have had to pay a terrible price, and they wouldn't trade places with them."

Castro, writes Falcoff, "enjoys a huge reservoir of what might be called 'racial' sympathy throughout Latin America," and still benefits from "the historic tendency of Latins to measure U.S.-Latin relations in rigidly antagonistic terms: that is, if something is bad for the United States, it has to be good for Latin America and vice versa."

Latin American leaders, moreover, rally around Castro precisely because he is such a potent anti-Yankee symbol and see no dissonance in simultaneously favoring Yankee ways. And why should they? Falcoff is perceptively describing a political phenomenon he can't bring himself to take seriously, which makes for strange reading.

Green Stuff Friends of the Earth is the new name of that environmental organization's monthly magazine, formerly Not Man Apart, which had insufficient box office appeal and problems with women readers to boot. The new tabloid design seizes your green lapels. (Subscriptions/membership, $25. Friends of the Earth, 218 D St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003) ... Meanwhile, Hearst is edging forward with Countryside, its high-gloss environmental offering. It's testing well on the newsstands and drawing attention for its grants to environmental organizations, while giving its readers hefty portions of Architectural Digest, Travel & Leisure and Lands' End to help the green vegetables go down.