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Monday, February 15, 2010

Another New York Times Plagiarist

Posted by on Mon, Feb 15, 2010 at 2:47 PM

Add business reporter Zachery Kouwe to the list of names that also includes Jayson Blair, Fox Butterfield, Steve Erlanger, and Rick Bragg—all New York Times journalists in the plagiary hall of fame.

According to the New York Times:

In a number of business articles in The Times over the past year... Zachery Kouwe, reused language from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other sources without attribution or acknowledgment... The Times was alerted to the problem by editors at The Wall Street Journal... Copying language directly from other news organizations without providing attribution — even if the facts are independently verified — is a serious violation of Times policy and basic journalistic standards. It should not have occurred. The matter remains under investigation by The Times...

Plagiarism is fiendishly difficult to spot unless you are the person who's been plagiarized. What are you going to do—Google every sentence a writer turns in? Even then, running sentences in quotation marks through Google won't necessarily find anything because of the magic of tiny alterations, and running sentences through Google without quotation marks turns up forty billion hits, because each word in a sentence leads to topics Google knows about. Several years ago it turned out that a Stranger writer had "reused language" from other publications multiple times and no one knew it—for years! We found out after that writer had left the paper (for other reasons) from someone who was doing research on a topic and reading a ton of different articles about it. We went back into that writer's online archive and tried to see if there was "reused language" in other pieces, which felt like trying to find a contact lens in the ocean. An editor would scour a piece and Google all the phrases in it and the piece would come up clean, no plagiarism—sigh of relief!—and then someone else would double check that same piece and find that it was full of "reused language" ever so slightly altered, with close synonyms replacing key words, nouns written out in a different order, the tense changed from past to present, or whatever. Eventually we decided to just delete all of that writer's work from our website. Not because the information was wrong (it probably wasn't), but because some of it was plagiarized and we had no way of knowing how much.

People who want to hate the New York Times will use this as yet another reason to believe the New York Times can't be trusted, but that's bullshit: No company that produces a written product (books, magazines, newspapers) is immune to plagiarism. And consider the volume of original content the New York Times cranks out every day. As for books, I suppose you've heard of Doris Kearns Goodwin?

And, on the scale of journalistic offenses, plagiarism isn't as horrifying as fabrication. The fabricator to end all fabricators was Stephen Glass, the New Republic reporter who had the gall, in the age of the internet, to make up entire companies, people, situations, etc., out of thin air. One of my first long pieces for The Stranger was about Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair sitting down for their first joint interview—they talked on the record about why they'd done the things they'd done and how they felt about it. What we didn't mention (though there were clues embedded in the text, and the art director at the time doctored the photo of them together to make something about it seem just slightly off) was that I made it up. I committed the same crime against them that they'd committed against all those other people. Then, the following week in The Stranger, Savage printed a correction, which he plagiarized from the New York Times correction about Jayson Blair.

As for Zachary Kouwe, the Huffington Post has some of the passages in question side by side. Gawker points out that "Kouwe's trouble spots seem to be banal background passages, dry sentences about Madoff asset freezes that are probably as painful to write as they are to pore over in search of repetition." So long as there aren't further revelations of bigger problems with his reporting, it sounds like the guy is probably under a lot of stress (news is a competitive business, especially if you work at the New York Times) and he just fucked up.


Comments (15) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Wait, journalists have standards?

Who knew?
Posted by Some Old Nobodaddy on February 15, 2010 at 3:02 PM · Report this

It's sad that "Copying language directly from other news organizations" violates standards but copying directly from press releases, be they governmental or industrial, is A-ok.
Posted by dirge on February 15, 2010 at 5:19 PM · Report this
Geocrackr 3
You may call bullshit on not trusting the NYT b/c of their plagiarism problems, but don't worry, there's plenty of other reasons the NYT can't be trusted (after all, they intentionally hired William "Every Word Out of My Mouth for the Last 20 Years Has Been Completely Wrong" Kristol, for gods' sake!)
Posted by Geocrackr on February 15, 2010 at 6:16 PM · Report this
Well if the loony left and rabid right both hate the NYT, you know they must be doing something right.
Posted by Centrists Rule the World today on February 15, 2010 at 6:39 PM · Report this
What I don't understand, is that with all the services around to help find copyright infringement on the web (copyscape, Tynt, etc) why don't major newspapers (especially ones like the NYT where plagerism complaints are especially noteworthy and troubling) why don't use tools to find plagerism in works they have not yet published. If they find any, then it is unlikely that the already published entry copied them.
Posted by aml on February 15, 2010 at 6:41 PM · Report this
That's interesting! All of it. Thank you for that.

You know, there's a novelist named Hank *Searls* whose awesome daughter lives in Seattle.
Posted by Amelia on February 15, 2010 at 8:03 PM · Report this

This is a real indictment of Google's primitive technology, which I define as "content aggregation" not "knowledge search" or anything of the sort.

It basically sniffs out words using Boolean logic but ultimately the human makes the choices of what matches his answer to a question.

Zero semantic understanding from Google and the other aggregators.
Posted by Charles Babbage on February 15, 2010 at 10:54 PM · Report this
Greg 8
@7: True. If Microsoft can ever make Bing work in a semi-intelligent way, they will school Google on their home turf.
Posted by Greg on February 15, 2010 at 11:00 PM · Report this
...I committed the same crime...?

"... I made it up. I committed the same crime against them that they'd committed against all those other people. Then, the following week in The Stranger, Savage printed a correction, which he plagiarized from the New York Times correction about Jayson Blair."

I am missing something.
An experiment?
To prove what?

Please explain.
Posted by David Sucher on February 15, 2010 at 11:50 PM · Report this
Brian Rowe 10
No need to play the google ""'s game to find where you are being copied. There are sites that will find your content online for you. is one of them with a free service for bloggers.
Posted by Brian Rowe on February 16, 2010 at 1:00 AM · Report this
Plagiarism is the DUI of the written word. It's considered a vile and reprehensible act, but everyone will do it eventually, and usually by accident or negligence.

Every tidbit of knowledge or information you have in your head has been gleaned from somebody else, who in turn got it from someone else, and so on. Therefore, every sentence you type or spew from your pie-hole must be followed by a citation that includes every human that has ever lived, or you are a plagiarist and you deserve to die.
Posted by Brandon J. on February 16, 2010 at 1:34 AM · Report this
As most good writers are also avid readers, listeners and observers, they will inevitably incorporate the words, works and ideas of others into their own.

We should prove ourselves more than litigious imbeciles by giving evidence to our understanding of the difference between outright theft and mutual influence.

Copyright 2010 Mine! Mine! Mine!, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Posted by Veruca Salt on February 16, 2010 at 3:40 AM · Report this
"...running sentences in quotation marks through Google won't necessarily find anything because of the magic of tiny alterations..."

Actually Google is quite good at ignoring those tiny alterations. Try it yourself. I took a quote from your post, changed, deleted and added a few words in various combinations (all in quotes) and it came up with your post as the first suggested link every time.

That said, anyone who thinks it's realistic to run every word of every story in a daily newspaper through a plagiarism checker has never worked for a daily newspaper.
Posted by bigyaz on February 16, 2010 at 10:22 AM · Report this

The only thing worse than a plagiarist is a liar.

Rick Bragg never plagiarized anything.

If he had, he would have been fired. He was suspended for two weeks for not crediting a stringer. In other words he violated a a NYT policy that never existed.

One has to wonder why you're so quick to accuse.

Jealousy perhaps?

Bragg is a best selling author and teacher at the University of Alabama and he's doing just fine thank you very much. And so damn happy that he's no longer works in a dying industry.

You, on the other hand, write for a weekly rag no one reads outside of Seattle.

Posted by laffs alot on February 16, 2010 at 1:16 PM · Report this
Yes, I agree that plagiarism is fiendishly tough to spot unless one is the person who's been plagiarized. What are you going to do—use Google (as a verb) every sentence a writer turns in?
Posted by David Sucher on February 17, 2010 at 8:02 AM · Report this

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