Plagiarism not governed by professional boundaries, says former Rocky Editor Temple

Should we hold public officials to the same standards as writers when it comes to plagiarism?

I emailed this question to former Rocky Mountain News Editor John Temple,  who’s now leading an online journalism experiment in Hawaii.

As a veteran editor, he’s obviously thought a lot about plagiarism. In what was, I believe, the last major instance of plagiarism in Denver, the Rocky’s Deputy Editorial Page Editor Thom Beal resigned in 2005 after it was revealed by 5280 Magazine that he lifted wording from a Washington Post article. Beal also copied a phrase from the Daily Howler. Temple wrote an item in the Rocky personally apologizing for “this breach of our trust with you, our readers.”

Temple emailed me:

“I don’t think plagiarism is governed by professional boundaries. We saw what happened when Joe Biden plagiarized Neil Kinnock. Nobody should take somebody else’s words and use them without crediting the original source.”

I don’t know who would disagree with this. It’s clear that plagiarism is wrong, regardless of who commits it.

But how big a deal should be made of it? Did yesterday’s news, that McInnis plagiarized a couple passages for an op-ed and floor speech, merit The Post’s front page? I’d say yes, but only because of the context…-that he had been caught in a bigger plagiarism scandal the day before, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars of foundation money.  The op-ed lapse would have been news either way, even if accepting opinion pieces from interest groups is common practice in Washington. But I don’t think it would have merited front-page treatment had McInnis’ water plagiarism not been on the front-page the day before.

Today’s news that Former Heritage Foundation scholar Daryl Plunk allegedly gave McInnis permission to use passages of his work does not change the news calculus. As Post Editor Greg More told The Post:

“It is an old ploy to blame the media for bad news. Allegedly having permission to copy someone else’s words or thoughts doesn’t necessarily mean that’s OK, but that is for others to decide.”

I think Moore got it right. And he’s also right that others will decide the fate politicians, while editors dictate what happens to reporters who plagiarize. 

“In my industry, an abuse like this one means you clean out your desk and go begging,” Chuck Plunkett wrote in the Spot blog Tuesday.  

So the immediate fate of a writer who plagiarizes is clear, while the immediate remifications for a politician are obviously not. Witness McInnis.

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