Reporters should dig into Norton’s plagiarism

I’m supposed to watching the media, but Denver Post reporter Lynn Bartels puts me to shame.

She can not only “half listen” to CNN from the “other room” but, at the same time, recognize that someone is saying something on CNN that Jane Norton said during a speech over six months ago.

As she reported on The Post’s blog, The Spot, Bartels heard Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) use a quotation that came from Norton’s mouth when Norton launched her senatorial campaign Sept. 15.

But there was one big difference. Rodgers properly attributed the quotation to former President Gerald Ford. And Norton did not.

Norton said, “I believe a government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government that’s big enough to take everything you have.”

Ford said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

Bartels’ discovery of this was pretty impressive, but her blog post didn’t offer any perspective on whether this is plagiarism on Norton’s part.

Journalists should take plagiarism ultra seriously, right, since some of them get fired for doing it. Not to mention the fact that plagiarist isn’t a skill we’re looking for in our future elected officials.

So I emailed a leading poobah in field of journalism ethics, Robert Steele, to find out whether Norton’s apparent act of plagiarism should, in fact, be considered plagiarism and what would happen to a journalist who did what Norton did.

Prof. Steele is the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute and the Director of the Jane Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University.

Here’s what he wrote:

If one uses a common understanding of plagiarism — using the specific words or nearly exact thoughts of someone else and claiming them as your original writing or thoughts — then Norton’s use of this quote falls into that category.

My guess is that many politicians have used a variation of this phrase over the years to capture an ideological position about the role of government in our society. If Norton had just taken the broad concept and stated it in her own words, she might have been OK. For instance, if she said something like, “A government that gives can take. We should be wary of big government that promises too much and makes us pay back all we receive,” she would have made her point (albeit with a less resounding quote) and avoided the plagiarism trap.

Given her use of the exact wording, Norton should have attributed the phrase to Ford (assuming he was the originator of the phrase and didn’t borrow it himself from someone else). 

If a journalist used this same exact phrase without attribution, I would want to know how it happened. I would ask the journalist how and why she/he used that phrase and why it wasn’t attributed. I would also check other work produced by that journalist to see if there are other problems with attribution. I would discipline the journalist based on the extent and reason for the failure in this case and whether the journalist has a history of plagiarism. That discipline could range from a serious reprimand to a suspension to dismissal.

In this case, I would ask Norton some questions. How did this happen? Did you write this speech? If so, where did you get that line? If not, who wrote the speech and/or that line? Perhaps one of her speech writers did this. Norton, as the person who used the words is still primarily responsible, of course. I would also do some plagiarism checking of her other speeches to see if this is a recurring problem.

I made certain that Steele saw that Norton’s words weren’t exactly the same as Ford’s.

“Norton’s words are very, very close to the exact wording of the Ford quote and her expression of this thought is almost verbatim to Ford’s expression,” he wrote back.  “Norton should have attributed the statement to Ford. By not doing so, she claimed it as her original thought. That’s wrong.”

Even if you don’t agree with Steele, you’d still want to hear more from Norton about the Ford quote, given that she wants to be Colorado’s U.S. Senator.

Reporters should follow up with her, along the lines Steele suggests: How did this happen? Has it happened before? What have you done to stop it from happening again?

A politician can commit plagiarism and be forgiven, perhaps more easily than a professional writer. Look at Joe Biden. But it’s up to reporters to take Norton’s transgression much more seriously. Get all the facts on the table, and let us decide.

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