On Ann Coulter’s ‘Plagiarism’
Ann Coulter has some things in common with Bill Clinton, whom she savaged in her best-selling book and whom she skewers in her columns at every opportunity. Like the former president, Coulter brings out the worst in her opponents. And, like him, Coulter is finding out that when your enemies can’t figure out how to stop you from doing the things that drive them crazy, they will look for other weaknesses to bring you down.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong in this strategy, by the way. Al Capone was sent to prison for tax evasion, not for murder. But there is an essential factor that must be present for the strategy to work: the target has to actually do something substantially wrong.
Coulter is an over-the-top rhetorical bomb-thrower and verbal terrorist who infuriates liberals with personal attacks leavened slightly with her own brand of Don Rickles wit. I had to search for all of 30 seconds to find the following examples of Coulter-isms on her web site:
And these are just from one column. Reading Coulter can be perversely enjoyable in the same way listening to a James Carville rant can be fun when he gets on a roll, but either will really raise one’s blood pressure if you take them seriously. It is silly to take them seriously, of course. Both are savvy performance artists for partisan crowds who love to hear them say outrageous things. But Coulter has clearly hit a nerve among liberals with her latest book “Godless” and her vitriolic speeches promoting it. Various left-leaning websites are actually calling for her to be banned from the airwaves and the Op-Ed pages, a surprising response from the ACLU members who will fight to the death for a crucifix immersed in urine to be publicly exhibited as art, and who rushed to protect the First Amendment rights of Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who wrote that the victims of 9/11 deserved to die.
But Coulter’s verbal bile certainly won’t get her banned; it’s what got her media attention in the first place. So taking a page from Churchill’s opponents’ playbook, Coulter-haters are trying to get her bounced for being a plagiarist. [Note: It appears that Ward Churchill is indeed a plagiarist, and after a long formal investigation uncovered multiple examples of research misconduct, fabrications and unattributed copying from other scholars, the University of Colorado is in the process of relieving him of tenure and firing him. His offenses seem to justify that result. But would the investigation have ever occurred if Churchill had not come under fire for his mean-spirited but undeniably constitutionally protected statements about 9/11? Almost certainly not. Does this mean that Churchill’s justifiable dismissal for plagiarism was really punishment for conduct, however despicable, that he had a right to engage in without fear of reprisal? If so, it is an example of an unethical result with no ethical alternative.]
After a couple of anti-Coulter blogs spent months dredging up supposed examples of text from her columns that seemed similar to excerpts from other sources, the New York Post hired John Barrie, the inventor of the “iThenticate” plagiarism-checking program used by many colleges and high schools to check student papers for cheating. Barrie claimed he found “textbook plagiarism” in the new Coulter book “Godless” after he ran it through his program, as well as detecting borrowed sentences in Coulter’s syndicated weekly column. The Post headlined his findings as COPYCATTY COULTER PILFERS PROSE: PRO.
Well, not exactly, though the headline itself was sufficient to set the liberal blogosphere off into a symphony of calls for Coulter’s excommunication from journalistic ranks. I’m not sure what Barrie’s agenda is; perhaps all he wants to do is promote his product. But what he calls Coulter’s “textbook plagiarism” is awfully trivial stuff.
Here’s a typical example:
Coulter from Chapter 1 of “Godless:”
The massive Dickey-Lincoln Dam, a $227 million
hydroelectric project proposed on upper St. John River in Maine, was halted
by the discovery of the Furbish lousewort, a plant previously believed
to be extinct.
The massive Dickey-Lincoln Dam, a $227 million hydroelectric project proposed on upper St. John River, is halted by the discovery of the Furbish lousewort, a plant believed to be extinct.
All of the examples cited by the blogs and Barrie are like that, bland factual statements that might might have justified a footnote in a term paper but that fall far short of the kind of plagiarism that most readers associate with the word. Serious journalistic and scholarly plagiarism is the outright copying of ideas, points of view and prose that were the creations of another author. The plagiarism that got Ward Churchill in trouble, as well as New York Times reporter Jason Blair, historians Doris Kearns and Stephen Ambrose and even Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, are different in kind. These would all sustain charges of copyright infringement, because what has been appropriated are the unique and personal creations of the original authors. The reporter who wrote about the Furbish lousewort would be laughed out of court if he tried to collect damages from Coulter. Even if it was intentional, copying such a sentence is what the law calls de minimis too trivial to matter.
Never ones to pay attention to matters of proportion, the Coulter-bashers took their “discovery” to ridiculous lengths. MSNBC gadfly Keith Olberman gleefully pointed out that Coulter had condemned Jason Blair in stinging terms, as if Coulter’s cribbing of a few factual snippets from news stories was on the same level of dishonesty as Blair’s blatantly fraudulent reporting. All ethical violations are not equally serious or reprehensible. Is the use of a few pedestrian and factual sentences from other sources plagiarism? I suppose so, though it is by far the least offensive and harmful variety of it imaginable. A better term would be laziness, I think, but even as low-wattage plagiarism, the conduct in no way implicates the integrity of a writer in the way that true plagiarism does. Coulter, by lightly adapting or copying such sentences, steals nothing of any value to the writer. The obvious objective was to save time, the mere seconds it would take to devise and type a new sentence with similar content, not hours of research or days of developing an original idea or argument. When a borrowed sentence is so basic that even its author would be hard-pressed to recognize it, the “plagiarism” is so technical that it approaches the vanishing point.
Not surprisingly, given these facts, an investigation of Coulter’s writings by the company that syndicates her column exonerated her from any wrongdoing. “There are only so many ways you can rewrite a fact and minimal matching text is not plagiarism,” the editor and president of Universal Press Syndicate said in a statement. [Full disclosure to Mr. Barrie: I lifted most of that last sentence from an AP story. Plagiarism?] True, but the Scoreboard is not prepared to let Coulter entirely off the hook. When she attacks people with wild and uncivil abandon, and makes them the butts of vicious jokes for the amusement of their ideological foes by calling them knaves and fools, she has implicitly agreed to hold herself to a higher standard, indeed, a standard that is impossibly high. She does not deserve much sympathy when her own laziness, sloppiness, or careless scholarship opens her up to attacks, even such specious ones as she is enduring now. Her best course, which she will almost certainly not take, would be to apologize to her readers and the authors whose words she used, admit that she has been careless with attribution in the past, and promise to be more careful.
As for Coulter’s critics who are searching for the silver bullet that will silence her, the ethical thing would be to wait until something comes along that genuinely discredits her. If Coulter doesn’t learn her lesson, it probably will.