16 February 2012

The postmodern plagiarist pushes journalism into a corner

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Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It holds tight an author’s phrase, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, and replaces it with just the right idea.”
– Comte de Lautréamont, 1870
This controversial quote sends chills into the spines of journalists who have been plagiarized. Most of us take ownership of the work our hands and minds create, if not legally, at least intellectually. But proponents of de Lautréamont's mantra might consider his acumen insightful. One person in particular, postmodern activist Guy Debord, was so enamored with this concept that he actually plagiarized the exact phrase, in French, in his 1967 work, The Society of the Spectacle.

In the art world, stealing is often considered a form of flattery. For centuries, originality was shunned as art and literature were judged on how well the creator imitated the masters. But things changed as western societies entered the Romantic period, and an individual’s right to ownership of a creative or literary work became a value to rival society’s right to common property.

Many communists and anarchists embody the notion that personal and intellectual property are constructs of the elite designed to oppress the working class. With the reconstruction of society and the ubiquity of the internet, concepts of ownership remain arguable and open to numerous valid interpretations.

However, even anarchists, the most vehement anti-property advocates, appreciate a sense of ownership. At least some do. One of the fathers of modern anarchy, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, famously bemused that “property is theft.” However, this French thinker also considered the product of one’s work the only real form of property.

Modern writers continue to push the boundaries of homage and theft. Authors Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber championed the questionable writing methods used by writers such as Helene Hegemann and Kaavya Viswanathan, who flagrantly and, in Hegemann's case, without compunction, plagiarized vast portions of their best-selling literary works.

Johnson-Eilola and Selber contend that the artistic method of assemblage — creating art by putting together found objects — can also be applied to literature, claiming that communication or writing problems can be solved in this manner. The pair essentially advocate cutting and pasting, and if necessary, adding original material to create a patchwork. This is what Professor Rebecca Moore Howard calls "patchwriting"and what Hegemann calls "mixing."

Their focus is mostly on academia, where plagiarism is epidemic. They note that academic discourse needs to consider the creative value of this method, and demanding originality from students is an archaic and controlling attempt to stifle postmodern creativity.

These claims are worth considering, but how does this apply to journalism? Should we demand originality from journalists, or should we expect plagiarism as part of the reporting process?

It boils down to attribution. A simple set of quotation marks and attribution makes everything OK. The problem is more an issue of pride than ethics — a plagiarizing journalist would appear foolish to quote a news article when that information should have come from an original source to begin with. If attribution is given, it makes the journalist appear lazy because she didn't get the information herself. Instead, she's quoting the competition. 

By not including plagiarized material in quotes, she appears competent. She hopes that nobody pierces this facade and sees her for what she is — the exact opposite of a competent journalist. 

Or is she not incompetent? Is she merely trying to meet the demand of an ever-hungry information-addicted society? Pressure to meet tight deadlines is what Washington Post reporter Sari Horwitz claimed was her reason behind plagiarizing the Arizona Republic. Is this pressure exacerbated because of the increased competition from online news sources (and the acceptable plagiarism that accompanies many non-traditional newsrooms)? If bloggers can steal stories, why can't traditional journalists?

If patchwriting and mixing become acceptable practices, much should be done to consider attributing properly to the origin of the many pieces used, and consider when and if a byline of the assembler (and her sources) is appropriate. It may be that an individual’s right to keep her work from being plagiarized is trumped by another individual’s right to, ostensibly, create a better work by stealing her work and combining it with other works. But who is the real source of information? Who is really given credit? And does it matter? 

For journalism, there's no question that it matters. The historical record needs to be held accountable, and can only be accountable if sources are transparent. In other spheres of life, attribution and intellectual ownership are contextual questions with no clear answer, but in journalism, there should be a higher standard.

As the legendary Robin Hood would likely agree, not all theft is wrong. Certain theft could be appropriate if the source of the theft is illegitimate. What’s the difference between a legitimate source and an illegitimate source? This is a question for our legal system and society, but on a deeper level, it is a question that authors of both original works and plagiaries need to answer for themselves.

“Everyone plagiarizes,” writes HuffPo blogger Lionel Beehner. “I say borrow away... Because at the end of the day, it's the originality of the idea that matters, not the ego of the idea's source.”
For journalism, it is a question of maintaining the integrity of our historical record, not ego. If ego is our driver, we will only steal more and be more opaque about it. If we're going to steal, we should at least be honest about our theft. 

At the end of the day, however, it's not about ego or honesty. It's about our duty as a public service. If we hold politicians and corporations to a strict critical lens, we should hold ourselves under a stronger magnification. If we can't do that, nobody will take us seriously, and the ever-elusive truth will find itself caught in a web of hypocrisy spun by the very industry that preaches the importance of verity.  

Works cited:

A User's Guide to Détournement. Guy Debord & Gil J. Wolman. Les Lèvres Nues #8 (May 1956)
Translated by Ken Knabb 

 Lasn, Kalle and Bruce Grierson. “A Malignant Sadness” Adbusters. June-July 2000.


 Dutton, W. H. (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March: pp. 1-15.

 Selber and Johnson-Eilola, Plagiarism, Originality, Assemblage, Computers and Composition, Vol. 24, No. 4.  (2007)

 Song From Myself: An Anatomy of Self-Plagiarism. Patrick M. Scanlon. vol. II, 2007

 Théorie de la propriété (Theory of Property). Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. 1866 

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