Why plagiarism matters

Published on CNN.com, July 19, 2016

I hail from the world of journalism, which has seen its fair share of plagiarism scandals in the past decade or so, starting with the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times in 2003. But plagiarism in the news business is a different animal from what’s being alleged of the speech Melania Trump delivered Monday night in Cleveland.

When journalists go astray, it’s because they’ve used somebody else’s reporting without crediting the source. The borrowing itself is fine. Journalists are supposed to take material from elsewhere; it’s called reporting, and they’re praised for being utterly faithful to the source material. That’s called accuracy.

Journalists are simply expected to acknowledge the debt by including a full attribution. They’re forbidden to be what others might call original. The journalist who’s being original — in the sense that we apply the term to poets and novelists, who create works of the imagination — is guilty of fabrication, and needs to be fired.

The unfolding Melania Trump affair, however, certainly seems to be more of an old-fashioned case of plagiarism: the straight-up theft of original expression, in this case, of passages from the 2008 speech given, on the same occasion (her husband’s nomination for president), by Michelle Obama. Although the sentiments of working hard and keeping promises are commonplace, the disputed wordings are practically identical, and any claim that the similarities are accidental is the kind of thing a fourth-grade teacher would laugh out of class.

Why does this matter? Plagiarism matters because it’s dishonest. Its dishonesty has at least two critical dimensions:

First, the speaker is, by failing to say otherwise, leading the listener to conclude he or she is the true author of the speech. Admittedly, authorship is always a squirrelly proposition in the case of public oratory by political figures or their kin, which is usually written or co-written by others. Still and all, it’s John F. Kennedy whom we agree to name when we quote his inaugural address, even though Theodore Sorensen did most of the writing, because the words reflect Kennedy’s sentiments and project his voice. However, we wouldn’t feel that way if we found out Sorenson lifted the most stirring passages from an earlier speech by Richard Nixon. In that case, we’d call him a thief.

Which leads us to the second dimension of plagiarism’s dishonesty: The denial of credit to the real author. The truth, as any journalist or speechwriter will tell you, is that writing is hard. The person who actually comes up with the fresh, clever, quotable turn of phrase, the one that captures a moment or a feeling in a way that you recognize as different and original — that person deserves a salute.

There may be no legal sanction to seek in this instance, since public oratory is rarely protected by copyright. And I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that the passages apparently cribbed from Michelle Obama’s speech rise to the level of deathless eloquence. But it was a good speech, and the sentences that were quoted were strong and relatable ones. The candid and emotionally honest nature of the words Melania spoke stands in utter opposition to the mendacity of the plagiarism from which they arose.

In a less politically fractured moment than our current one, it wouldn’t have been unthinkable for Melania Trump to admit that she was actually moved by Obama’s speech, and by the similarities between her upbringing and Obama’s. She could have admitted to seeking much the same inspiration from her family now that she’s facing (she hopes) similar life prospects to those Obama was facing in 2008. Saying that would have shown real class.

Instead, the public must now process a squalid and utterly needless bit of petty larceny on the part of grownups who apparently never quite took to heart the wisdom behind the schoolteacher’s instruction to “put it in your own words.”

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