broadsideblog

Gerald Posner's Plagiarism Apology — And Why It Doesn't Work

In Media on February 11, 2010 at 9:20 am

Gerald Posner, a writer I haven’t read and don’t know personally, has resigned from his spot at The Daily Beast for plagiarism. Part of his explanation:

Readers of my writing over 26 years, 11 books and over a hundred articles, have the right to trust that I have personally vetted and corroborated the facts I present, and that I can vouch for them. Plagiarism is insidious because it rightfully violates that trust. Just the mere use of the word raises the idea that the accused journalist has broken one of the cardinal rules of writing and is somehow cutting corners on research, facts, or original reporting.

Since June 1, when I accepted the full time staff position, I have published 72 articles (8 were published freelance before accepting the full-time reporter’s job). That averages about 2 articles a week. They all required intensive reporting, and the subjects ranged from the Michael Jackson death probe, CIA morale, Teddy Kennedy’s fortune, whether there was a John Doe 2 in the Murrah bombing, exclusive interviews with Afghanistan’s Karzai brothers, Roman Polanski, probes into domestic and international terror, and the Tiger Woods story, among many others. At least a dozen stories that I spent time researching did not pan out, and never got published.

I realize how it is that I have inadvertently, but repeatedly, violated my own high standards. The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer – with two years or more on a project – to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.”

I’m not buying it. As a writer of his vintage, who has written hundreds of articles, likely more than a thousand by now, and only 1.5 books (the second is in progress), I know he knows the rules of the game.

What he’s not telling us, nor does he need to although it might better explain his need for speed, is the payment method that dragged him into this mess. Why was he working so quickly and cranking out so much copy? Because his editor(s) asked him to? Because only then would he make more/enough income from his Beast material? Because that’s what his competitors do?

Every ambitious writer who works in the game of intellectual piecework known as freelance journalism faces growing economic pressure.

Very few  — either because they’re making $8,000 or $15,000 or $25,000 per story can thereby earn $100,000+, which — after 11 books and 26 years’ experience — would barely match what a staffer of that level is making at a decent magazine or newspaper job. Pay rates in journalism are risible. Many major magazines have reduced their freelance pay rates in the past two years and also reduced the number of stories they are assigning. In addition, very few want a story of 3,500 words at $2/word (i.e. a $7,000 check) or $3/word (generally considered a high rate).  When you are paid (as we are) by the word, your income is going down, not up.

Pay rates haven’t budged in 30 years — a payment of $700 or $1,000 or $1,500 is not unusual for those writing even for prestigious outlets like The New York Times, for whom I’ve written since 1990. Do the math. Unless you have a steady gig, or make $3/word+ every time you turn on your computer, it takes an insane amount of production to scrape together a middle-class income, or more.

The pressure to keep up, both intellectually and financially, is enormous.

But…blaming this issue on the acceleration from the slow lane of writing a book to the express lane of blogging doesn’t work for me as a reason. I’m doing it, and others are as well. Every day I’m swerving between those lanes — blogging here and writing a non-fiction book on deadline. Last night I wrote a blog post and spent two hours on my book.

They are totally different creatures. They do require quite disparate ways of thinking, writing and connecting with your audience.

Frankly, and maybe it shows — there are only so many hours in a day — my book will take precedence until the final manuscript is accepted. It is tougher and tougher to get a major publisher to commit to a book, so it’s not something you can or should, take lightly.

I’ll blog here as often as I can intelligently. The pressure, now, for writers to grow their digital “brand” is also enormous and not one we can afford to ignore. But the revenues aren’t there. Books generally don’t pay well either, (maybe for writers of Posner’s stature), but using the excuse of shifting from one slower writing style to another faster one, arguably for some voracious, insatiable audience dodges other issues.

Maybe Posner, like many of us, simply placed inordinate pressure on himself to produce a lot of copy. Two stories a week, of the sort he describes, is a lot of work when thoughtfully reported and well-written. Why two? Why not one? Blaming the “warp speed of the net” clouds the issue.

It’s the warp speed of trying to keep up, to keep up your standards while keeping up.

Like every writer doing the wearying, challenging dance between the old, slower world of print and the newer, faster world of blogging, we have to make choices.

Let your standards slip? Write fewer stories? Fall out of the elite slipstream?

Which is worse?

  1. Well said. His excuse was thin. I would have had more respect for him bawled that he’s a self sabotage junkie and had to go to rehab. Well, maybe the same respect for him…

  2. Caitlin – not 1.5 books. 11 books, ranging from a biography on Josef Mengele in 1986 to the heroin trade in 1988 to a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1993 with Case Closed on the JFK assassination. Others have included books on the MLK assassination, Why America Slept about 9.11, and even the Saudis, Secrets of the Kingdom. You could have checked my website first. http://www.posner.com And it’s in the first line of my statement you quote

  3. Gerald, it was me I was referring to — who has written 1.5 books; my point being, respectfully, that you far out-rank me in this regard by YOU having written 11, which is a terrific accomplishment I respect and admire.

    Sorry if that sentence was unclear: it begins with “As a writer of his vintage” – i.e. in your co-hort more or less chronologically and in terms of journalism experience — I am referring here in this sentence to me, not to you.

    My surprise at a veteran with such tremendous and wide-ranging experience falling into this situation is the point of my post. I am not unsympathetic to your plight of rushing (over)production. It is an industry-wide problem. But, choices were made.

  4. During my 40 years as a professional journalist, I have investigated alleged plagiarism by fellow reporters. Never has my research led me to believe the “inadvertent” defense.

    I have read much of Posner’s work, and have appeared on one professional panel with him, about investigative reporting, a long time ago. Generally, I have admired his books and magazine features. So I want to believe his explanation for the plagiarism that just occurred. I’m too backed up with my own assignments (plus caring for elderly, ill parents) to conduct my own inquiry into Posner’s journalistic practices.

    All I can do is hope to hear an explanation from him that sounds credible, plus hear a sincere apology. Then I must hope he is not an incurable serial plagiarist.

  5. [...] under great pressure and tight deadlines tempted to make a questionable judgment call like Gerald Posner. And while the straight up copying of passages is a pretty clear ethical violation, with more and [...]

  6. [...] under great pressure and tight deadlines to be tempted to make a questionable judgment call like Gerald Posner. And while the straight up copying of passages is a pretty clear ethical violation, with more and [...]

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