Friday, January 11, 2013



So another plagiarist bites the resignation dust because he was one of a motley crew who don't have the smarts to do what real writers know in their gut that they have to do. Attribute!
The top official of the biggest school board in the country somehow never learned during his stellar career that it's okay to quote others but you have to name them too. That's the proper thing to do. But this word pirate posing as an educator pretended all the stories and sentences were his.
 Good riddance to sneaky copycats. It is so easy to do what all good writers do, to use the words of others as building blocks for our creations of language, and to say who we're quoting.
After all, there are so many clever thoughts and phrases flooding our history and literature and public life that anyone who boasts they have uttered something original has wandered into a swamp.
I have not come to praise plagiarists but to bury them. (Yes,  I'm cribbing Shakespeare.) Yet there have been famous speeches which are a web of thoughts stolen from the greats who have gone before. It's not always as black and white as print on a clean page.
Remember the quip that plagiarism is stealing from one source, scholarship is stealing from many. That has been said so many times, there are probably an army of people pretending they said it first.
When is it research and when is it stealing when you examine some ringing statement and find it is a blend of thoughts? Take one of the most famous quotes in addresses by U.S. presidents, what John Kennedy said in his inaugural. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Great!  But over the years, revelations showed that more than just JFK had a hand in fashioning that inspiration.
JFK's speech writer and friend was Ted Sorenson. Just before he died, he spoke at the University Club. I tried to get to him afterwards but he was slow and blinded by age and the circles of admirers made it too difficult.
What I wanted to ask was how those lines were formed. There is a book that says that Kennedy had a headmaster who said them so often in class, students used to roll their eyes. We also know that Warren Harding almost 50 years before in a presidential address gave a ponderous version. We also know that  2,000 years before that, Decimus Junius Junenval laid out this challenge to citizens in a speech to the Roman Senate.
Kennedy cared about words. He worked endlessly on the speech, getting input from many, such as Adlai Stevenson and the famous Canadian export, J. Kenneth Galbraith. And of course it was stitched together finally by Sorenson, a formidable wordsmith.
It certainly would have slowed the wonderful cadence if JFK had credited his old teacher or a Roman statesman but he didn't. It is interesting to speculate a half-century later, in the age of Google and cell phones that give you instant access to the vast world of words, whether that quote would have so memorable if it had been delivered in this era of inevitable paper cuts from critics and nerds who are incapable of soaring language but are quick to play Sherlock Holmes on message theft
I  confess that I once plagiarized. I was in the middle of the nightly ordeal of writing my daily column when my mother-in-law phoned to say she was having a heart attack. I sped to the rescue but found it was indigestion. I returned frazzled to the Sun. I agonized and then it all flowed. I was rather proud, until months later when I was in the library and found I had written almost the identical column five years before.
What has always puzzled me is that so many accused plagiarists are also good writers. They are informed and thoughtful. Dick Beddoes, a Globe sports writer, once copied an entire column on boxing from a sports anthology and was caught by Doug Fisher, the famous political columnist who also was a sports historian of note. Yet Beddoes was a feisty communicator who could raise your ire with his fire when he zeroed in on some bum as a player.
It gets more complicated in newspapers because in the business of writing history in a hurry, editors often confront scoops in the opposition and have to decide immediately whether to "scalp," which is to rewrite the other paper's story, or to try to match and improve, or just ignore.
I was rewrite chief with four reporters working for me at the old Tely. We took dictation, fattened wire service stories, cleaned up the copy of our colleagues, chased stories by phone and had this major chore of scalping. You would only have an hour or so to try to confirm the story and get a new angle. It wouldn't be unusual not to find out anything,  and then it would be up to the main editors whether they would run a rewrite.
One Saturday after I got promoted, the Star had a major scoop on the FLQ crisis and I decided as the editor in charge of the Telegram that day not to scalp the headline story because our reporter in Montreal had no idea whether it was true or an invention.  On Monday, the brass decided frostily that I had done the ethical thing, but one that had cost in street sales.
Media commentators who really haven't laboured long in the trenches may scoff at this but plagiarism in news story is not considered by the brass as improper as in the articles and columns that can be composed far more leisurely.  That is why it is so serious when pundits are accused, and that just happened in the Globe with Margaret Wente, a good columnist, and with the guest article in the Star that brought down Chris Spence from the school system. It is so serious that columnists are suspended, humiliated by public apologies from their bosses, or even fired. There is a blot against your reputation that colleagues never forget. One respected journalist who had worked at the Sun before the Star committed suicide when he was accused.
I am not bothering to deal with radio and TV news department routinely ripping articles out of the Toronto newspapers and then regurgitating or going out with clipping in hand to remind reporters of what questions to ask when they shove a mike in a face.
My published output is probably 10 million words when you add together 6,000 columns, 3,000 editorials, many magazine articles and four books. Then there were hundreds of radio and TV commentaries. So I was as busy as some of these media personalities who have cut corners or researched carelessly and decide to save time but still impress readers through plagiarism.  But Ted Schrader, a great journalism prof at Ryerson, had drilled into us the fundamentals of journalism. I can't recall any lecture from him on plagiarism because it was the opposite of everything he stoof for, but then, we don't give lectures against murder.
We were taught  to construct our stories from the arguments, observations and facts of others and to be meticulous when you described whom they were. You were told not to fly solo with your own  thoughts until you had something to say because of experience.
What baffles me about Spence, the resigned school czar who had hordes of admirers, is that when he read the cute story about the girl saying she was drawing God, why he didn't just repeat the story, and give the source, without pretending it happened to his son. It's still a good story, one reason the real author has told it so often.
Obviously stealing from others had become a way of life, from thesis to speeches to guest editorials.
It all comes down to your basic approach, remembering that much of what we say is triggered by the thoughts of others. I have used what I think is an insightful saying and if I can't remember who said it, or dig it out of a small library of quotations that most writers have, I just say "as someone has said..."
 I love to tell stories - some friends claimed I'm in my anecdotage - but I never pretend they happened to me or my family when they didn't. They're still interesting. As for jokes, when you read any big book on jokes, you conclude that every punch line has already been used and it's daft to pretend that you made the joke up.
There are commentators and politicians who have become famous just because they can take all the speeches and reports on a major issue and distil them into capsules of thoughts. I remember Phil Givens, a Toronto mayor who could shoot from the lip with the best of them (a line borrowed from many) who rose from alderman because he could summarize hours of debate in a few clear sentences. So when reporters were skipping through their notes, they always quoted Phil because that saved them from having to quote most of the others.
This is where plagiarism hides under a cloak because there is no doubt that the speaker or writer is repeating the thoughts of others as well as their own. But the thefts that are so revolting are when the  plagiarists are so busy making money or are so dumb or intellectually lazy that they don't even try to compose their own anecdotes or descriptions.  That is fraud
I end with this caveat. I have not read recently any columns on plagiarism. Any resemblance to arguments by people much brighter than me is purely coincidential. No writers or books have been mined in the preparation of this piece.
And no animals were harmed either.

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