Telling stories

You Didn’t Write That

Posted by southwrite on June 18, 2014

chris-hedges posterPlagiarism by famous and respected writers is back – with a vengeance.

Last week best-selling author Chris Hedges was caught extensively plagiarizing a piece for Harper’s Magazine. This is not some run of the mill hack, but a famous and respected journalist. The magazine described how he had lifted large portions of his own article about Camden, New Jersey from an earlier series by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Matt Katz.

It’s always more disappointing when an author you admire and whose books and articles you’ve read closely for years is caught doing something considered so wrong. One of the worst sins in journalism is to steal someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own. I’ve read Hedges’ books and article for years and considered him a clear and powerful voice for morality and justice in a world which often distains both. Here’s how the New Republic described him in its article:

Hedges had been a star foreign correspondent at the Times, where he reported from war zones and was part of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for covering global terrorism. In 2002, he had received the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He is a fellow at the Nation Institute. He has taught at Princeton University and Columbia University. He writes a weekly column published in the widely read progressive website Truthdig and frequently republished on the Truthout website. He is the author of twelve books, including the best-selling American Fascists. Since leaving the Times in 2005, he has evolved into a polemicist of the American left. For his fierce denunciations of the corporate state, his attacks on the political elite, and his enthusiasm for grassroots revolt, he has secured a place as a firebrand revered among progressive readers.

With a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University, Hedges’ writing possesses a highly principled and moral tone. It was one that I found appealing and it also contributed to my own feelings of betrayal.

Like a lot of others, I was reluctant to believe it was happening. Again. This is especially true after so many authors and journalists have done so and gotten caught and seen their careers collapse in infamy.

Blogger Nick DiUlio, who teaches ethics to journalism students, wrote “Once again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But part of me can’t help but hang my head in perplexed disenchantment, asking myself the same questions I ask my students: Why the hell would someone like Hedges decide to do this? And how did he go so long without being caught?”

Apparently, Hedges has gotten away with stealing other writers’ work for a long time – perhaps years. That’s surprising. Especially, as DiUlio notes, in an age when you can Google just about anything and there is even software to check whether you’re committing plagiarism.

As I said Hedges is not the first to plagiarize and get caught. The list of offenders is long and extends back into the past – beyond the Internet Age and even into antiquity. The 11th-century Muslim scholar Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi claimed the Book of Animals of Al-Jahiz to be “little more than a plagiarism” of Aristotle’s Kitāb al-Hayawān.

More recently names like Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Jonah Lehrer have come to symbolize this journalistic transgression. In earlier years we shook our heads at the likes of historians and bestselling authors Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, when they used the work of others without citation in their books. Marvel Comics writer Bill Mantlo became famous for allegedly plagiarizing the work of comic legends such as Stan Lee and Archie Goodwin, as well as a television script by science fiction author Harlan Ellison. [Of course the prolific Ellison has sued seemingly everyone in Hollywood over plagiarism of his many novels, stories and scripts.]

After each scandal we always ask why? What motivated talented and often quite successful writers to steal – usually material from people much less famous than themselves. None of them would be considered hacks. All seemed to have the talent and skill needed to create original work and reporting. Why didn’t they?

Only Hedges and the others can really answer that question. I wonder though if perhaps their own fame and success didn’t become part of the problem. Were the expectations so high – Hedges part of a team of reporters at the New York Times awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for coverage of global terrorism – they didn’t think they live up to them?

Some writers have offered various excuses such as the pressure of time and the distraction of large amounts of source material. It’s understandable a reporter could mistakenly use information without attribution under pressure of deadline. [Hedges was accused of passing off a quote from Hemingway as his own writing in his first book.]  Once. That’s a mistake. Doing so consistently over a period of years is a lifestyle.

No, I don’t know the answer, but I do know the pain I and other admirers of Hedges feel now. Sadly, it’s likely to be one that will be repeated again – and again.

2 Responses to “You Didn’t Write That”

  1. John Cooke said

    I follow Matt Katz on twitter and have read a lot of his writing. I was really shocked to read about this incident. I’m fairly certain I haven’t seen Matt exploit the story. It is a great lesson for newer people like myself. Heck in two stories I even credited a business website if I used their details. I am enjoying your writing.

    • southwrite said

      I found it shocking as well, John. I’ve read and admired Hedges’ work for a number of years. Most plagiarism is not deliberate, but the result of poor record keeping and haste. The story recounts how Hedges inserted a Hemingway quote as his own into his very first book. No doubt it was a mistake. But lifting 20 quotes in a single article is not a mistake. And then instead of coming clean he apparently engaged in a protracted effort to cover it up. That’s says more about his character than the original incident. (It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that matters.)

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