20 February 2010

Zachery Kouwe

The latest case of looking over the shoulders of the guy in the desk in front of you involves Zachery Kouwe, a New York Times business reporter who has plagiarized shamelessly.

The paper in an editors' note on Valentines Day didn't use the p word, but it did say the editors had found "cases of extensive overlap between passages in Mr. Kouwe’s articles and other news organizations’. (The search did not turn up any indications that the articles were inaccurate.)"

Personally, I am always more saddened by reporters who copy the work of their colleagues than I am by reporters who make stuff up, Stephen-Glass style. I am more put off, you might say, by the inadequacy of imagination than by its excess. Staying true to the facts, while finding a fresh way to express them, that is always the double challenge of the non-fiction writer in general.

Not long ago it was fashionable to talk about the "death of the author." That was a literary-critical theory born on the left bank of the Seine, yet later nurtured under the shade of the elms lining the streets of New Haven, Conn. It taught that when properly deconstructred by clever critics, all texts refer to other texts -- indeed, all texts merge into one big text. Authors just disappear from the account.

Fortunately, the author seems to have been resurrected, even in academia. Now it is even more important than before that Paschal-event that authors, of all sorts, respect their own calling and that of their colleagues.

Kouwe was immediately suspended and then, on Tuesday (Mardi Gras -- two days after the Valentines Day announcement -- should we be drawing some sort of symbolic conclusions from these intruding holidays?) met with editors and union reps to discuss possible disciplinary action. Apparently, Kouwe decided to save them the trouble of further proceedings and resigned.

You can find particulars here.


Henry said...

One must consider the particular facts of each case of plagiarizing and of each case of fictionalizing a news report, but, in general, I find the latter the more serious offense. This is because it leaves the reader with false information about the substance of the news, which is, after all, the reason we read news. Plagiarizing, admittedly, leaves the reader with false information about who wrote the words he is reading, but readers don't generally care much about that in the context of a news story. (In the context of a work of fiction, the identity of the author is of more concern.)

I remember a case of plagiarizing maybe a decade ago by the Baltimore Sun classical music critic. As I recall it, he had reviewed a classical music performance and, early in the review, included a paragraph of biographical information about the composer, and had lifted this information from an encyclopedia. He was fired, which seemed to me an overreaction. Of course, he should have put the biographical information in quotation marks, but no one was hurt by his failure to do so. Compare that to the offense of making up biographical information.

Christopher said...


I'm curious. How did the music critic's bosses find out? Was it a sharp eyed reader who brought it to their attention? or the people with intellectual property rights to the encyclopedia?

Henry said...

Here is a website with summaries of dozens of "Journalist Plagiarism/Fabrication Scandals"

The one I mentioned is this one:

Stephen Wigler (Baltimore Sun) – Music critic Stephen Wigler was fired in November 1999 after a reader pointed out that his Nov. 15 review of the Baltimore Opera's "La Traviata" included an unattributed excerpt from "The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera," Sources: “Newspaper music critic dismissed for alleged plagiarism,” The Associated Press, November 26, 1999; “Ethical Lapses,” American Journalism Review, March 2001 compiled by Lori Robertson and Christopher Sherman.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.