Lefty Writer Chris Hedges Is a Habitual Self-Plagiarist

Last week, the New Republic accused Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer-winning ex-New York Times reporter and antiwar essayist, of plagiarism. A further investigation by Gawker has found that Hedges has published writing suspiciously similar to that of left-wing hero Amy Goodman, and that he has been recycling and reselling his own old work as original writing to multiple outlets for at least a decade.

The preponderance of the evidence suggests that in addition to borrowing liberally from sources as diverse as Hemingway and fellow Harper's contributors, Hedges—an antiwar icon who has published widely and prolifically since leaving the Times more than a decade ago—is also a serial self-plagiarist, on the order of the disgraced New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer.

Gawker examined a variety of Hedges' online writings for similarities to other works. The investigation, which focused especially on the writer's earliest columns for the liberal site Truthdig beginning in 2006, was neither systematic nor scientific. But of approximately 20 pieces examined, at least half exhibited verbatim similarities to older work, either Hedges' or someone else's. The similarities ran from a few lines to several thousand words.

"I stand by my body of work," Hedges told Gawker when asked in an email about several of the instances of borrowing documented below. "I do not plagiarize. I never have and never would. That's basic professionalism." He added that he did not believe using "my own concepts and even words in different venues" was plagiarism.

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Two of the articles Gawker examined bore striking resemblances to work by other writers—including one who, like Hedges, has been praised on the left for decades of fearless reporting on the excesses of American empire.

On February 7, 2007, the Democracy Now! website trumpeted host Amy Goodman's exclusive first interview with Sami Al-Arian, a pro-Palestinian academic jailed for tenuous alleged ties to terrorism. The introduction, and part of the interview, read thus (emphasis added):

Al Arian was acquitted on eight of seventeen counts against him and the jury deadlocked on the rest. Four months after the verdict, he agreed to plead guilty to one of the remaining charges in exchange for being released and deported. At his sentencing, the judge gave Al-Arian as much prison time as possible under a plea deal–57 months. His release date was set for April 2007.

But just over two weeks ago, a judge found him in contempt for refusing a second time to testify before a grand jury in Virginia in a case involving a Muslim think tank. The date of his release could now be extended by as much as 18 months because of the ruling. Al-Arian, who is a diabetic, began a hunger strike in response...

AMY GOODMAN: In this Democracy Now! exclusive, we speak with Sami Al-Arian from prison. He called us yesterday from the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia….

SAMI AL-ARIAN: Well, I believe that freedom and human dignity are more precious than life itself. In essence, I'm taking a principled stand, that I'm willing to endure whatever it takes to win my freedom.

Four days later, Hedges interviewed Al-Arian for Truthdig. Here is a portion:

Al-Arian was acquitted on eight of the 17 counts against him by a Florida jury, which deadlocked on the rest. He agreed to plead guilty to one of the remaining charges four months later in exchange for being released and deported. The judge gave Al-Arian as much prison time as possible under a plea deal—57 months at his sentencing. He was set to be released this April, something that now appears unlikely.

…But because Al-Arian has twice refused to testify before a grand jury in Virginia in a case involving a Muslim think tank, he has now been charged with contempt of court. The date of his release could be extended by as much as 18 months.

Al-Arian, who is a diabetic, began a hunger strike in response.

"I believe that freedom and human dignity are more precious than life itself," he said in a telephone interview from Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va. "In, essence I am taking a principled stand that I am willing to endure whatever it takes to win my freedom."

The rest of Hedges' interview appears to be original, with none of Arian's comments appearing in the earlier Democracy Now! interview. It is, of course, possible that Arian offered Hedges the same verbatim talking point he offered Democracy Now's Goodman. But that doesn't explain the similarities in language between the two write-ups, which are nearly identical, except for a few transpositions of certain phrases.

Hedges would not answer directly when asked in an email whether he'd seen the Democracy Now piece before writing his own. "These are statements of fact about the trial," he wrote. "And that was the quote he gave me in the phone interview."

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In 2009, Hedges won a Southern California Journalism Award for "Party to Murder," a Truthdig column the previous December on Israeli violence and American complacency toward Gaza. He wrote:

We forget that we are all absurd and vulnerable creatures. We all have the capacity to fear and hate and love. "Expose thyself to what wretches feel," King Lear said, entering the mud and straw hovel of Poor Tom, "and show the heavens more just."

Quoting Lear in this context is understandable, but the way he phrased it was striking—first because it presumes a command of minor Shakespearean characters in his readers, and second because it omits a middle line from the quote in the play. This condensed phrasing, and the verbatim exposition in the middle, appears in another place—a 2000 blog post about a Shakespeare festival:

The King moves from ego-ridden arrogance to self-pity to identification with the wretched. "Expose thyself to what wretches feel," he says, entering the mud and straw hovel of Poor Tom, "and show the heavens more just." Lear finds that stripped of our property, we are all pretty much the same.

It's a single line, and it's unclear whether Hedges was influenced by that 2000 post. The post was by Tim Harris, a Seattle-based social justice activist who had written favorably of Hedges on his politics blog the year before Hedges composed his prize-winning column.

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Far more common in the samples were Hedges' repetitions of his own work, from stock clichés on the nature of war to complete essays.

In 2003, Hedges delivered a commencement address to Rockford College in Illinois. His message was unwavering:

This, Thucydides wrote, is what doomed Athenian democracy; Athens destroyed itself. For the instrument of empire is war and war is a poison, a poison which at times we must ingest just as a cancer patient must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison of war — if we do not understand how deadly that poison is — it can kill us just as surely as the disease.

We have lost touch with the essence of war.

On November 11, 2008, he led a Truthdig column similarly:

War is a poison. It is a poison that nations and groups must at times ingest to ensure their survival. But, like any poison, it can kill you just as surely as the disease it is meant to eradicate. The poison of war courses unchecked through the body politic of the United States. We believe that because we have the capacity to wage war we have the right to wage war. We embrace the dangerous self-delusion that we are on a providential mission to save the rest of the world from itself, to implant our virtues—which we see as superior to all other virtues—on others, and that we have a right to do this by force. This belief has corrupted Republicans and Democrats alike. And if Barack Obama drinks…

That expanded phrasing also appears at the beginning of an introduction Hedges wrote to "The Will to Resist," a 2009 book by reporter Dahr Jamail:

War is a poison. It is a poison that nations and groups must at times ingest to ensure their survival. But, like any poison, it can kill you just as surely as the disease it is meant to eradicate. The poison of war courses unchecked through the body politic of the United States. We believe that because we have the capacity to wage war we have the right to wage war. We embrace the dangerous self-delusion that we are on a providential mission to save the rest of the world from itself, to implant our virtues—which we see as superior to all other virtues—on others, and that we have a right to do this by force. This belief has corrupted Republicans and Democrats alike.

Barack Obama and those around him embrace the folly...

It's common for journalists, working on periodicals and books and speeches, to sometimes deliver the same anecdotes or themes in different works. It is especially common for journalists with a narrow specialization, like Hedges' focus on war and state power. Formulaic writing, while a vice, is rarely treated as a mortal sin in media circles.

But outright repetition, word for word, is something else. When editors commission pieces, it's on the expectation of getting something new. Instead, Hedges has engaged in a pattern self-appropriation and repurposing content. He recycles not just phrases or incidents, but entire articles and essays, identical passages of thousands of words, time and again in different paying outlets across more than a decade.

"I think it is important to remember that I usually always retain ownership of my work," Hedges told Gawker. "If I used my own concepts and even words in different venues, they are still my own—that is not plagiarism. I have produced hundreds of thousands of words of printed copy. If from time to time errors slip in, I correct them when I become aware of them or they are pointed out. What matters is intent."

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In 2004, Hedges filed a 1,900 word dispatch from Gaza for Mother Jones on life behind an Israeli-built barrier wall. Here is how it opens:

There is a 25-foot-high concrete wall in Nahayla Auynaf's front yard. The gray mass, punctuated by cylindrical guard towers with narrow window slits for Israeli soldiers, looks from her steps like the side of an ocean liner. It is massive, cold, and alien. The shrubs, bushes, and stunted fruit trees seem to bow before it in supplication. On this August day, I struggle to make sense of it, the way I struggle to make sense of the pit that was the World Trade Center.

We do not speak...

That entire piece—with only minor grammatical changes—appears in the middle of this longer article about Israel/Palestine politics, written by Hedges for Truthdig in 2006:

...And until we become comprehensible to each other there will not be peace in the Middle East.

There is a 25-foot-high concrete wall in Mrs. Nuhayla Auynaf's front yard. The gray mass, punctuated by cylindrical guard towers with narrow window slits for Israeli soldiers, appears from her steps like the side of a docked ocean liner. It is massive, cold and alien. The dwarfed shrubs, bushes and stunted fruit trees seem to huddle before it in supplication. I struggle to make sense of it, the way I struggled to make sense of the smoldering rubble that was the World Trade Center a few hours after the planes hit.

We do not speak...

This repetition of the Mother Jones piece continues to its conclusion; the Truthdig column then continues for several thousand more words. Mother Jones' editors tell me they were unaware of the similarities and are reviewing their contracts to determine whether the reproduction of the 2004 published work in a new context would have required permission, linking, or a note.

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Also in 2004, Hedges wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books surveying two recent volumes on modern conflicts. It opens with a stirring section of just under 300 words:

The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war. The vanquished know the essence of war—death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.

But the words of the vanquished come later, sometimes long after the war, when grown men and women unpack the suffering they endured as children, what it was like to see their mother or father killed or taken away, or what it was like to lose their homes, their community, their security, and be discarded as human refuse. But by then few listen. The truth about war comes out, but usually too late. We are assured by the war-makers that these stories have no bearing on the glorious violent enterprise the nation is about to inaugurate. And, lapping up the myth of war and its sense of empowerment, we prefer not to look.

The current books about the war in Iraq do not uncover the pathology of war...

This essay later appeared—with the same lead and closing paragraphs, but with new analysis replacing the book review portion—as an original piece on Antiwar.com in June 2005:

The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief....

[The same entire 288-word passage from the example above repeats here.]

...And, lapping up the myth of war and its sense of empowerment, we prefer not to look.

We see the war in Iraq only through the distorted lens of the occupiers...

An editor at Antiwar.com told me the site's staff was unaware of the similarities until I brought them up. After our conversation, the site appended its piece with an editors' note: "This piece originally appeared in greatly expanded form as a book review in the December 16, 2004 issue of the New York Review of Books, a fact we did not know at the time of publication. We regret the error."

The first paragraphs of both these pieces also appear, verbatim, in a different context in the introduction to Hedges' January 2008 book, "Collateral Damage," starting at the bottom of page xxviii:

The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief....

[The 288-word passage is repeated again.]

...And, lapping up the myth of war and its sense of empowerment, we prefer not to look.

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Some of the new language inserted into that Antiwar.com piece popped up elsewhere in the book's introduction, as well; here is one of the new paragraphs near the end:

War is always about this betrayal. It is about the betrayal of the young by the old, idealists by cynics and finally soldiers by politicians. Those who pay the price, those who are maimed forever by war, however, are crumpled up and thrown away. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they bring is too painful for us to hear. We prefer the myth of war, the myth of glory, honor, patriotism and heroism, words that in the terror and brutality of combat are empty, meaningless and obscene.

A similar passage appears in a January 2010 Truthdig column, as well as in an introduction Hedges wrote for "Afterwar," a 2005 book of photography by Lori Grinker:

The wounded, the crippled and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted off stage. They are war's refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the myth of glory, honor, patriotism and heroism, words that in combat become empty and meaningless. And those whom fate has decreed must face war's effects often turn and flee.

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One of Hedges' most withering critiques of Iraq, an extended passage from a Truthdig column dated August 6, 2007, keeps coming up:

Iraq no longer exists as a unified country. The experiment that was Iraq, the cobbling together of disparate and antagonistic patches of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious powers in the wake of World War I, belongs to the history books. It will never come back. The Kurds have set up a de facto state in the north, the Shiites control most of the south and the center of the country is a battleground. There are 2 million Iraqis who have fled their homes and are internally displaced. Another 2 million have left the country, most to Syria and Jordan, which now has the largest number of refugees per capita of any country on Earth. An Oxfam report estimates that one in three Iraqis are in need of emergency aid, but the chaos and violence is so widespread that assistance is impossible. Iraq is in a state of anarchy. The American occupation forces are one more source of terror tossed into the caldron of suicide bombings, mercenary armies, militias, massive explosions, ambushes, kidnappings and mass executions. But wait until we leave.

It was not supposed to turn out like this. Remember all those visions of a democratic Iraq, visions peddled by the White House and fatuous pundits like Thomas Friedman and the gravel-voiced morons who pollute our airwaves on CNN and Fox News? They assured us that the war would be a cakewalk. We would be greeted as liberators. Democracy would seep out over the borders of Iraq to usher in a new Middle East. Now, struggling to salvage their own credibility, they blame the debacle on poor planning and mismanagement.

There are probably about 10,000 Arabists in the United States—people who have lived for prolonged periods in the Middle East and speak Arabic. At the inception of the war you could not have rounded up more than about a dozen who thought this was a good idea. And I include all the Arabists in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence community. Anyone who had spent significant time in Iraq knew this would not work. The war was not doomed because Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz did not do sufficient planning for the occupation. The war was doomed, period. It never had a chance. And even a cursory knowledge of Iraqi history and politics made this apparent.

This is not to deny the stupidity of the occupation. The disbanding of the Iraqi army; the ham-fisted attempt to install the crook and, it now turns out, Iranian spy Ahmed Chalabi in power; the firing of all Baathist public officials, including university professors, primary school teachers, nurses and doctors; the failure to secure Baghdad and the vast weapons depots from looters; allowing heavily armed American units to blast their way through densely populated neighborhoods, giving the insurgency its most potent recruiting tool—all ensured a swift descent into chaos. But Iraq would not have held together even if we had been spared the gross incompetence of the Bush administration. Saddam Hussein, like the more benign dictator Josip Broz Tito in the former Yugoslavia, understood that the glue that held the country together was the secret police.

Iraq, however, is different from Yugoslavia. Iraq has oil—lots of it. It also has water in a part of the world that is running out of water. And the dismemberment of Iraq will unleash a mad scramble for dwindling resources that will include the involvement of neighboring states. The Kurds, like the Shiites and the Sunnis, know that if they do not get their hands on water resources and oil they cannot survive. But Turkey, Syria and Iran have no intention of allowing the Kurds to create a viable enclave. A functioning Kurdistan in northern Iraq means rebellion by the repressed Kurdish minorities in these countries. The Kurds, orphans of the 20th century who have been repeatedly sold out by every ally they ever had, including the United States, will be crushed. The possibility that Iraq will become a Shiite state, run by clerics allied with Iran, terrifies the Arab world. Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, would most likely keep the conflict going by arming Sunni militias. This anarchy could end with foreign forces, including Iran and Turkey, carving up the battered carcass of Iraq. No matter what happens, many, many Iraqis are going to die. And it is our fault.

This entire section, in a completely different context, appears in the middle of chapter five in Hedges' 2009 book "When Atheism Becomes Religion." It also forms the middle of Hedges' introduction to "The Will to Resist," the 2009 Jamail book.

Much more of that introduction—to the tune of more than a thousand words, republished verbatim, without references or citations—also appeared in a March 2, 2009, Truthdig column, itself reprinted from a speech Hedges planned to give to several protest crowds two weeks later, on the sixth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. In these latter incarnations, Hedges expands his critique to include Afghanistan. Here is but one repeated excerpt:

Do the cheerleaders for an expanded war in Afghanistan know any history? Have they studied what happened to the Soviets, who lost 15,000 Red Army soldiers between 1979 and 1988, or even the British in the 19th century? Do they remember why we went into Afghanistan? It was, we were told, to hunt down Osama bin Laden, who is now apparently in Pakistan. Has anyone asked what our end goal is in Afghanistan? Is it nation-building? Have we declared war on the Taliban? Or is this simply the forever war on terror?

That particular passage also appears nearly verbatim in an August 25, 2008, Truthdig column by Hedges:

Do the cheerleaders for an expanded war in Afghanistan know any history? Have they studied what happened to the Soviets, who lost 15,000 Red Army soldiers between 1979 and 1988, or even the British in the 19th century? Do they remember why we went into Afghanistan? It was, we were told, to hunt down Osama bin Laden, who is now apparently in Pakistan. Has anyone asked what our end goal is in Afghanistan? Is it nation-building? Or is this simply the forever war on terror?

In sum, Hedges has used the same interlocking passages, essentially word for word, in at least five different published works across two years without acknowledgement or citation.

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In the middle of a July 7, 2008, Truthdig column on how reading sustains him through America's decline—a column later reprinted in his 2011 book, "The World As It Is," Hedges writes:

..."The practice of art isn't to make a living," Kurt Vonnegut said. "It's to make your soul grow."

The historian Will Durant calculated that there have been only 29 years in all of human history during which a war was not under way somewhere. Rather than being aberrations, war and tyranny expose a side of human nature that is masked by the often unacknowledged constraints that glue society together. Our cultivated conventions and little lies of civility lull us into a refined and idealistic view of ourselves. But look at our last two decades—2 million dead in the war in Afghanistan, 1.5 million dead in the fighting in Sudan, some 800,000 butchered in the 90-day slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by soldiers and militias directed by the Hutu government in Rwanda, a half-million dead in Angola, a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia, 200,000 dead in Guatemala, 150,000 dead in Liberia, a quarter of a million dead in Burundi, 75,000 dead in Algeria, at least 600,000 dead in Iraq and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fighting in Colombia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, southeastern Turkey, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, Kosovo. Civil war, brutality, ideological intolerance, conspiracy and murderous repression are the daily fare for all but the privileged few in the industrialized world.

"The gallows," the gravediggers in "Hamlet" aptly remind us, "is built stronger than the church."

I have little connection, however, with academics…

Hedges, who holds a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School, also penned a July/August 2000 essay for Harvard Magazine titled "What I Read at War." In it, we find an identical passage—again, in a different context:

But war is also fundamental to the human condition. Will Durant calculated that there have been only 29 years in all of human history during which a war was not underway somewhere. Rather than an aberration, war exposes a side of human nature that is masked by the often unacknowledged coercion and constraints that glue us together. Our cultivated conventions and little lies of civility lull us into a refined and idealistic view of ourselves. Look just at our last decade—2 million dead in the war in Afghanistan, 1.5 million dead in the fighting in the Sudan, some 800,000 butchered in the 90-day slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by soldiers and militias directed by the Hutu government in Rwanda, a half-million dead in Angola, a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia, 200,000 dead in Guatemala, 150,000 dead in Liberia, a quarter of a million dead in Burundi, 75,000 dead in Algeria, and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fighting in Colombia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, southeastern Turkey, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf War (where perhaps as many as 35,000 Iraqi civilians were killed). Civil war, brutality, ideological intolerance, conspiracy, and murderous repression are part of the human condition—indeed the daily fare for all but the privileged few in the industrialized world.

"The gallows," the gravediggers in Hamlet aptly remind us, "is built stronger than the church."

From the time I began covering war in 1983 in El Salvador...

The Harvard Magazine essay later continues:

There is a wonderful moment in Henry IV, Part I, when Falstaff leads his motley band of followers to the place where the army has assembled. Lined up behind him are cripples and beggars, all in rags, because those with money were able to evade military service. Prince Hal looks askance at the pathetic collection before him, but Falstaff says, "Tut, tut, good enough to toss, food for powder, food for powder. They'll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men."

I have seen the pits in the torpid heat in El Salvador, the arid valleys in northern Iraq, and the forested slopes in Bosnia. And Falstaff is right. For despite the promises never to forget the sacrifices of the honored dead, and those crippled and maimed by war, the suffering they and their families endure quickly become superfluous.

Hedges appears to have used this passage in his Truthdig column eight years later, as well—although he has updated it with a reference to President George W. Bush:

There is a moment in "Henry IV, Part I," when Falstaff leads his motley band of followers to the place where the army has assembled. Lined up behind him are cripples and beggars, all in rags, because those with influence and money, like George W. Bush, evade military service. Prince Hal looks askance at the pathetic collection before him, but Falstaff says, "Tut, tut, good enough to toss, food for powder, food for powder. They'll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men."

I have seen the pits in the torpid heat in El Salvador, the arid valleys in northern Iraq and the forested slopes in Bosnia. Falstaff is right. Despite the promises never to forget the sacrifices of the dead, of those crippled and maimed by war, the loss and suffering eventually become superfluous...

Regardless of how readers and media critics feel about self-plagiarism—and there is broad disagreement even about the term itself—Hedges' career seems to have settled into a comfortable place where he is sought by publications more for who he is than for what he writes—like a clichéd sports columnist or a predictable pop-science phenom.

The examples go on and on: passages from a 2008 Truthdig column on Wall Street financiers sprinkled into his 2009 book "Empire of Illusion," then excerpted from the book in newspapers like The Globe and Mail—an ironic feedback loop, given that the book is an indictment of the self-perpetuating media noise machine. Considering the small sample size it took to find these instances, there are likely to be many more.

[Photo credit: The Nation Institute]