In the prologue to her new book, “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson addresses the organization of her look at contemporary media struggles. “The Powers That Be,” a 1979 book by David Halberstam on four media organizations, provided an organizational blueprint for Abramson’s look at the New York Times, The Post, Vice and BuzzFeed. She even writes about “copying Halberstam’s template.”
Turns out that’s not all she copied.
Vice correspondent Michael Moynihan in a Wednesday Twitter thread flagged a series of overlaps between Abramson’s work and the work of other authors:
That’s one damning book review. The tweet thread from Moynihan documents incidents of concerted plagiarism — where the author appears to have taken pains to distance her work from that of others with minor edits and flourishes. The effect is an utter lack of originality.
Pressed by Fox News host Martha MacCallum on Wednesday evening about the allegations, Abramson said, “All I can tell you is I certainly didn’t plagiarize in my book, and you know, there are 70 pages of footnotes showing where I got the information,” she said. Later she declared that she would have a second look:
The book’s publisher has also reacted appropriately to the urgency of Moynihan’s side-by-side screenshots. The project, according to Simon & Schuster, had accorded "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. If upon further examination changes or attributions are deemed necessary we stand ready to work with the author in making those revisions.”
There are indeed 68.5 pages of sourcing notes in the book, which weighs in at 530-plus pages. Yet as Moynihan himself points out, those sourcing notes don’t support the purloined material — and even if they did, “it’s still plagiarism," he observes, correctly.
Plagiarism is inexcusable when an overrated wunderkind of hot takes does it. Plagiarism is inexcusable when a young expert in viral storytelling does it. Plagiarism is inexcusable when a fledgling columnist does it.
But what is plagiarism when one of the country’s pillars of journalistic rectitude does it? Utterly inexcusable and big news, that’s what.
What credentials: Nine years at the Wall Street Journal. Washington bureau chief of the New York Times. Managing editor of the New York Times. Executive editor of the New York Times. Senior lecturer at Harvard University. It’s that hefty past that floats the entire book. In chapter after chapter, Abramson stands as the arbiter of decisions at big-time newsrooms and how they affect quality journalism.
In her discussion of Vice, the author writes about how the organization’s HBO series “had given Vice the patina of mainstream news credibility.” In reference to new-media organizations, Abramson writes, “The breathless news cycle left little time for formal training of the young, aspiring journalists who mostly sat behind computers scraping previously published content off the internet and rewriting it or spinning it in new directions.” Regarding her own alma newsroom: “The Times was hardly the only quality news organization to misreport the lead-up to the Iraq War, but because of its stature its mistakes damaged the institution more deeply.” Commentary on BuzzFeed: “McKay Coppins and two colleagues, Rose Gray and Ruby Cramer, were turning out political pieces every bit as good as those in the New York Times and the Washington Post.” On the thoroughness of the New York Times: “Because of the Times’s high standards it was slow going, however, and [Emily] Steel’s work wasn’t published until December 23. She’d gotten scooped by the Daily Beast.” On the Times coverage of Trump’s upset election: “Less than two hours later [Michael] Barbaro was ready to explain what had been considered an impossibility earlier in the day. That was the Times’s forte: making sense of events.” More: “But writing my own political column for the Guardian in 2016, I was frustrated to see the line between investigative reporting and scandal mongering become fuzzy.”
As she was casting judgment on other news organizations, it turns out, Abramson should have been applying those grand standards to her own work. That was no trivial undertaking, considering the ambition of “Merchants of Truth.” The narrative proceeds in three parts, with each containing a discrete chapter on each of the news organizations. There are consequential details that matter to the future of media and inconsequential details — scenes at parties, personal descriptions, etc. — that matter to the book’s readability. There’s a whole lot of media reporting.
And apparently not sufficient investment in the product, which is what the book is about in the first place. In her acknowledgments, Abramson cites the work of an assistant who happens to do some highly unspecified work: “He drafted portions of this book and provided a sharp eye throughout in editing the manuscript," notes the acknowledgements.
Well, what portions? It’s not as though authors have never, ever relied on other writers. Ghostwriters are everywhere in the industry, and sometimes they don’t even want to be identified. But this is Jill Abramson, anchor of the American Media Standards Desk. Would Jill Abramson the executive editor of the New York Times have allowed such lack of specificity in a byline?
Here’s the level of disclosure in Steve Coll’s prize-winning book “Ghost Wars.”
If there’s one thing Abramson has learned from running a quality news organization, it’s that she must respond to legitimate criticism. And on Thursday, she issued her third statement on this scandalito:
“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,” she said.
"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.”
Bolding added to highlight an interesting formulation. “The language” is one way to describe the offending material. “The words that I wrote and that bear my byline” is another.