Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson responded Thursday to allegations that she plagiarized portions of her new book, “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” telling The Washington Post, “I was up all night going through my book because I take these claims of plagiarism so seriously.”
In the statement, Abramson defended the book’s extensive citations but vowed to correct errors in attribution:
I was up all night going through my book because I take these claims of plagiarism so seriously. In writing Merchants of Truth, I tried above all to accurately and properly give attribution to the many hundreds of sources that were part of my research.My book has 70 pages of footnotes, and nearly 100 source citations in the Vice chapters alone, including the New Yorker, the Columbia Journalism Review, The Ryerson Review of Journalism, and a Masters’ thesis, the sources from which Mr. Moynihan says I plagiarized.The notes don’t match up with the right pages in a few cases and this was unintentional and will be promptly corrected. The language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text. This, too, will be fixed.I wouldn’t want even a misplaced comma so I will promptly fix these footnotes and quotations as I have corrected other material that Vice contested.The book is over 500 pages. All of the ideas in the book are original, all the opinions are mine. The passages in question involve facts that should have been perfectly cited in my footnotes and weren’t.
Abramson was confronted about the allegations — outlined in a Twitter thread by Vice News’s Michael Moynihan — during a Wednesday appearance on Fox News. When asked by anchor Martha MacCallum whether she had any comment on numerous similarities detailed by Moynihan, Abramson replied, “I really don’t.”
Moynihan’s tweets went viral Wednesday and brought a lot of attention to Abramson’s book, which was mired in controversy even before it published this month. The thread, which focuses on three chapters Abramson wrote on the media company Vice, highlights paragraphs containing language that appears to be lifted from material published in Time Out, the New Yorker and the Columbia Journalism Review.
“All I can tell you is I certainly didn’t plagiarize in my book, and there’s 70 pages of footnotes showing where I got the information,” Abramson told MacCallum.
Moynihan wrote in the thread that there are “plenty more” examples of “enormous factual errors, other cribbed passages, single or unsourced claims.”
One of the reporters mentioned in Moynihan’s thread, Jake Malooley, responded forcefully on Twitter.
When asked by MacCallum whether there could have been an attribution or footnote issue in the book, the former Times editor replied, “No, I don’t think this is an issue at all.”
“Many people from Vice have been taking issue with the book,” she said. “I think they don’t like the portrayal of Vice, although I think it’s a very balanced portrait and I have a lot of praise for some of their journalists and some of their stories. I like their fresh approach to news.”
Ian Frisch, author of “Magic Is Dead” and a freelance journalist, said after reviewing Moynihan’s thread that he did some digging of his own. He combed through what Abramson had written in her book about Vice’s Thomas Morton, whom Frisch profiled in 2014 for a magazine he founded, Relapse.
He then posted a similar thread, highlighting what appear to be passages and quotes lifted without proper attribution. Although Relapse discontinued, Frisch said in an interview Wednesday night that his profile on Morton was accessible for a couple of years on his website before he took it down.
“The whole situation is quite troubling, especially from someone who looked up to Jill and people like her as sort of the institutional leaders,” Frisch said. “I came up with and I still do read the New York Times every single day. To go through those passages and to see how similar they were to my own writing — for her to attribute a quote to Thomas as if he was speaking to her, when he was speaking to me — it’s just very disheartening.”
The Marshall Project’s Bill Keller, who preceded Abramson in the role of executive editor at the New York Times, tweeted in support of her on Thursday. “It’s distressing that some apparent carelessness in attribution might overshadow her achievement,” he wrote.
Jill Abramson is a journalist of courage and integrity. She has written a great book on the profound transformation of the news business, richly documented and full of insight. It's distressing that some apparent carelessness in attribution might overshadow her achievement.— Bill Keller (@billkeller2014) February 7, 2019
Cary Goldstein, executive vice president of publicity at Simon & Schuster, which published “Merchants of Truth,” said in a statement that it was “an exhaustively researched and meticulously sourced book.”
“It has been published with an extraordinary degree of transparency toward its subjects; each of the four news organizations covered in the book was given ample time and opportunity to comment on the content, and where appropriate the author made changes and corrections,” Goldstein said. “If upon further examination changes or attributions are deemed necessary we stand ready to work with the author in making those revisions.”
The Washington Post reviewed endnotes in the back of Abramson’s book, which refer to pages where she used material that was not her own. There is no indication in the main text of the book showing which passages require attribution.
The Post could not review all of the citations but found some citations that appear to refer to Frisch’s work as well as examples pointed out by Moynihan. The citations are not referenced in the passages where the sourced material was used and instead are listed with page numbers and organized by chapter. They key to specific quotes or terms in the passages and refer to articles, websites and books.
“I’ve been shown that small snippets of my story have been credited in the endnotes, but the endnotes do not go into the depth of how much this section about Thomas relied on my article,” Frisch later wrote on Twitter. “She quotes Thomas as if he’s speaking to her directly. This would not fly for a mag article.”
Speaking with The Post, he added, “I worked so hard to stick to the foundation of journalism, which is truth and accuracy, and it’s difficult for me to see such brazen similarities in Jill’s work and my own.”
In the book’s acknowledgments, Abramson credits a journalist named John Stillman as her “research, reporting, writing, and editing assistant.”
“He made contributions from beginning to end that made this book possible,” she writes, adding that "he drafted portions of this book and provided a sharp eye throughout in editing the manuscript.”
The Post attempted to reach Stillman by phone and email but had not received a response.
This is not the first time Abramson’s work has come under scrutiny. Author Corey Robin noticed in February 2018 that a paragraph in her New York Magazine feature making a case for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas appeared to mimic portions of a 2016 article on the justice by Think Progress’s Ian Millhiser.
The paragraph in Abramson’s story was subsequently updated to include a link and attribution to the Think Progress article. An editor’s note added to the end of the story explained, “Due to an editing error, the original version failed to attribute this quoted sentence to its author,” but it did not provide more information about who was responsible for the error.
“The change was made the day after publication of the story, when Ian [Millhiser] brought the matter to Jill’s attention,” Lauren Starke, director of communications for New York Magazine, told The Post on Thursday. “In terms of how it happened, research notes were erroneously incorporated in an early draft. We believe the attribution to be sufficient in the updated paragraph. Jill turned in her draft and then worked with a magazine fact-checker.”
Antonia Farzan contributed to this report.