Today's New York Times contains a lengthy Editor's Note explaining that Charles Siebert "unwittingly incorporated" language from an e-mail into his Times Magazine story last Sunday. Sounds familiar, right? Except when Maureen Dowd does it, it's no big deal.
NYT Picker caught the editor's note, which is inexplicably not on the paper's web site, and points out that Siebert's sin is strikingly similar to what Maureen Dowd did when she lifted a paragraph from Josh Marshall's blog a couple months ago. Only Siebert, a contributing writer for the Times Magazine, got rapped with a lengthy editor's note that explained the mechanics of his mistake, while Dowd got off with a one-line correction that explained nothing.
Siebert's story ended with an account of a whale that was found stranded in fishing lines in 2005 off the coast of San Francisco, and its reaction after rescuers freed it. According to the editor's note, Siebert lifted some of his descriptive language from an e-mail account of the event that had been sent to him:
Some of the language in the retelling of that event was identical to descriptions of the rescue in an e-mail message that circulated widely after the incident. Specifically, the lines that the whale swam "in joyous circles" after it was freed and "nudged" the divers gently, "as if in thanks"; that the divers thought it was "the most beautiful experience they ever had"; and that one diver said he would "never be the same" appeared in the e-mail message, which was sent to the Times' writer, Charles Siebert, in the course of his reporting.... Mr. Siebert said that he unwittingly incorporated some of the phrasing from the e-mail message that he had been sent earlier. The Times does not allow writers to replicate language without attribution, and had the editors known of these repetitions, they would not have published the passage in that form.
This hippy-dippy testimonial from one "Dr. Ingeborg Puchert," found on the web site of the "University of Healing," contains some—but not all—of the phrases at issue, and seems like the sort of thing that would get widely circulated via e-mail. Siebert also relied on—but didn't lift any language from—a San Francisco Chronicle account of the same event.
Writing is, in its own way, hard—not as hard as real work, but still. We can understand how Siebert could either cut and paste something into his story with the intention of chopping it up into quotes and later forgetting to attribute it, or write something that he thought was his own synthesis of various sources but actually included phraseology bouncing around in his head that he didn't know at the time was a direct quote from one of those sources. It's not necessarily a cardinal sin, and—if Siebert is telling the truth—it's categorically different from someone deliberately plagiarizing someone else's work.
But it's not different—at all—from what Maureen Dowd did in May, when she "inadvertently" copied an entire paragraph written by Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall into her column. Dowd's explanation for the slip was that she was "talking to a friend of mine...who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent — and I assumed spontaneous — way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column...but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me." We have to assume, giving Dowd the benefit of the doubt, that she was referring to an e-mail conversation, because it's preposterous to imagine that her friend verbally recounted a 43-word paragraph word-for-word and that Dowd took it down in her notes as such. So it was an instance of a Times reporter unintentionally lifting language from an e-mail.
Correction: May 18, 2009
Maureen Dowd's column on Sunday, about torture, failed to attribute a paragraph about the timeline for prisoner abuse to Josh Marshall's blog at Talking Points Memo.
We've asked the Times why the two cases received differential treatment, and why the editor's note isn't available online. And we've emailed Dowd to ask her why she thinks Siebert's lifting was apparently seen as more problematic than hers. And we couldn't immediately track down contact info for Siebert—let us know what you think, Charles.