Plagiarism pits integrity, compassion against each other

Sunday, November 25, 2007 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 10:22 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The John C. Merrill plagiarism scandal is a bit much for me to digest. It just so happens that this week I’ve been doing prescheduled interviews with Dr. Merrill as part of my final project for a class: a 25-page paper about his professional ethics.

I didn’t catch wind of the Missourian editorial until Monday. That’s because I was busy over the weekend trying to reckon with the 30 books he has written.

Here’s a man who was the first to study global journalism on a comprehensive scale, who arguably invented the study of international journalism. He spent his career making the case that a journalist must be “both a poet and a scientist,” who should hold him or herself not to a professional code, but to a yet higher, self-directed standard that ultimately made him all the more accountable: The journalist must be free to make choices, but thus is solely responsible for those choices.

At the same time, one of Merrill’s primary principles has been to remain humble and not take himself too seriously. He has done all that he has done not for any grandiose reason, but because he loves ideas, loves to write, and because, simply, “it’s a living,” as my father, also an esteemed professor, used to say.

The week has taught me nothing if not how maddening and thorny the issue plagiarism is for journalists and educators. It’s reminded me of a line I came across years ago from Blaise Pascal: “Man is so necessarily foolish that not to be a fool is merely another freak of folly.”

The week also completed a cycle for me that began just over 10 years ago, when I walked into my first day of an Intro to News Writing class at NYU’s graduate school of journalism. On that day, my professor, Dick Blood, had slammed a fist down on the table and bellowed, “There are no standards anymore.”

Mr. Blood, a city editor at the Daily News for 18 years, had just resigned from Columbia University because of a plagiarism scandal. The story was that he had caught a well-connected student, and when the administration hemmed and hawed about expulsion, Mr. Blood let it be known that either the student would go or he would go.

So Columbia expelled the student, and then someone got him a job at the New York Post. Mr. Blood contacted the editors there and made sure this ex-student was now an ex-employee as well. Then the kid went to the West Coast, where he was handed a job at Wired Magazine. Blood soon tracked him down and got him fired from there, too. And that’s when Blood quit Columbia and came to teach us.

At first, I thought Blood was just a blowhard. But by May of that school year, the Stephen Glass scandal was in the news, and by August, Mike Barnicle was forced to resign from the Boston Globe. Almost immediately, there was talk of book deals and pay raises for both of them. By the time of the Jayson Blair debacle, I stood firmly in Blood’s camp.

I caught my first plagiarist ­— the first of seven that I caught over three years — while I was teaching a freshman Media and Society class at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He was a 20-year-old basketball recruit on a full scholarship, who was barely literate.

I even called Blood and asked him what to do.

“I know you’ll show him mercy, because you’ve got a heart like a marshmallow,” Blood said. “But you won’t be doing him a favor, and you won’t do the school a favor, either.”

Blood was right of course: I didn’t try to get him expelled. Instead, I called his mother, and spent the rest of the semester making him write and rewrite the paper until he could actually begin to form proper sentences and paragraphs. In any case, I couldn’t have gotten him expelled, and if I had, he never would have gone back to school, although who knows if he ever graduated anyway.

And now I’m faced with the story of Dr. Merrill. There’s a lot to debate and discuss here, obviously, about the importance of attribution, about where to draw lines, about taking care and responsibility, and other things. But what is clearest to me at the moment is the basic human dimension to this problem: namely our inherent frailty, which is, after all, just our mortality. And who can blame the guy, for whom it’s a battle at this point just to keep on going, for wanting to hang on to some semblance of pride after all these years?

I just think we’re nothing as journalists without our integrity, but what are we if we don’t maintain our compassion, as well?

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Ralph Szwarc January 10, 2009 | 12:07 p.m.

Thanks for your well written, concise and to the point letter published in January 9, NY Times. It was so good I was going to plagiarize it.
Ralph Szwarc

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