It seemed as though today would be the day that disgraced Black Lives Matter activist-turned-provocateur columnist Shaun King would be caught in exactly the kind of lie for which, after a series of highly public controversies, the internet still seemed eager to nail him. Justin Miller, an editor at The Daily Beast, tweeted at 2:34 p.m. that King had plagiarized his Tuesday broadside from a story written by The Daily Beast’s Kate Briquelet.
The evidence seemed damning. Briquelet’s story—about a black Oklahoman named Elliott Williams who was left to die while paralyzed in a Tulsa prison cell over the course of five days—includes the following passage:
When Williams arrived to the county jail’s booking area in the early morning of Oct. 22, Owasso officer Jack Wells slammed him to the floor while trying to handcuff him, according to the cop’s own interview with OSBI. Officer Wells told OSBI he “landed on top of Elliott’s shoulder and head,” but that the prisoner “appeared to be fine with no injuries.”
Still, the Tulsa sheriff office’s appeared to disagree. In an internal report, the sheriff’s department says Williams struggled after the fall, and that his condition was captured on booking cameras. “At this time it is obvious that Williams is having a difficult time standing,” the document stated.
In King’s column, those two paragraphs appeared in identical form:
When Williams arrived to the county jail’s booking area in the early morning of Oct. 22, Owasso officer Jack Wells slammed him to the floor while trying to handcuff him, according to the cop’s own interview with OSBI. Officer Wells told OSBI he “landed on top of Williams’ shoulder and head,” but that the prisoner ‘appeared to be fine with no injuries.’
“Still, the Tulsa sheriff office’s appeared to disagree. In an internal report, the sheriff’s department says Williams struggled after the fall, and that his condition was captured on booking cameras. ‘At this time it is obvious that Williams is having a difficult time standing,’ the document stated.
The evidence seemed to speak for itself, but King immediately defended himself to CNN’s Dylan Byers:
Of course, every instance of plagiarism is a direct quote, but quotes are attributed and plagiarism is not. In King’s column, his quotation of Briquelet was not attributed, which would make it plagiarism.
Here's Shaun King lifting an entire paragraph from FiveThirtyEight last week, without quotes or attribution. pic.twitter.com/QSp1mjzY78— Alex Griswold (@HashtagGriswold) April 19, 2016
But the screenshot (on the right) of King’s piece features a link directly before the paragraph in question, which takes you to the FiveThirtyEight article. If Shaun King was a serial plagiarist, why was he linking to his source material in one article but not in another?
The answer: malpractice on the part of his editor. In his own defense, King forwarded a timestamped draft of his Elliott Williams article to several media reporters. That draft showed clear attribution of Briquelet:
CNN’s Byers claimed he had also seen the draft of the story that apparently ripped off FiveThirtyEight and it, too, was clear in its attribution:
Less than an hour later, Byers reported that the Daily News was supporting King’s explanation that an editor at the Daily News had garbled his properly cited columns, in the process putting apparent plagiarism out into the world under King’s byline.
The New York Daily News backed Shaun King’s explanation re: The Daily Beast, but has yet to comment on FiveThirtyEight—statement coming soon— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) April 19, 2016
An hour later, Byers reported that the Daily News had fired the then-unnamed editor.
“Editor has been fired" https://t.co/IJBqx7efUJ— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) April 19, 2016
In a later statement, the Daily News announced that one of its editors, whom Byers later revealed to be Jotham Sederstrom (who, full disclosure, is married to Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers), had “made a series of egregious and inexplicable errors” in which the editor “deleted attribution that made it appear passages from Shaun King’s columns were not properly credited.”
And thus the tale of how “Shaun King, the plagiarist” became the tale of “Unnamed Daily News Editor, the person who either maliciously or accidentally stripped block quotes from a drafted column which made them appear as if they were plagiarized.”
But the Daily News backing King doesn’t necessarily mean King will be able to shed the label of plagiarist. Speaking to Byers, Daily Beast executive editor Noah Shachtman in no way absolved King of blame in the matter:
“The Daily News says this was editor’s error, but either way the result is the same,” executive editor Noah Shachtman told CNNMoney. “In journalism we’re not judged by our rough copy, we’re judged by what we put on the web, what we put on the page.”
It is harsh of Shachtman to judge King by his editor’s error, but the quote is emblematic of the trust that King has lost with his peers—in both the activist and journalism worlds—if not also his readers. King was once known best as a champion for the rights of black men and women who died at the hands of police officers, but several highly public controversies have sapped of him the goodwill he accrued in that valuable role. He’s now similarly distrusted by activists and the bigots who seek to tear them down, and Shachtman seems to be making implied use of that distrust, even if it has no direct bearing on whether King plagiarized.
Correction: This post initially misspelled the name of Daily Beast executive editor Noah Shachtman. It has been corrected and updated with his full job title.