By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Dowd was just talking with a friend

I don’t think New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd committed a hanging offense. But I continue to be troubled by her explanation of how she came to lift a paragraph from Josh Marshall’s megablog, Talking Points Memo.

OK, so Dowd was “talking” in a “spontaneous” manner with a friend, as she put it to the Huffington Post. Fine. I had decided to assume for the purpose of moving on that by “talking” she meant “e-mailing.” It would be completely believable if she had copied and pasted from a friend’s e-mail who had volunteered to help her write her column. Lame, but believable.

And yet here is what she told a blog called the Nytpicker, via e-mail:

no, we were going back and forth discussing the topic of the column and he made this point and i thought it was a good one and wanted to weave it in;
i just didn’t realize it was josh marshall’s point, and we’ve now given him credit
my friend didn’t want to be quoted; but of course i would have been happy to give credit to another writer, as i often do

I don’t see how you can possibly construe this as an e-mail exchange, especially when, as you will see, the Nytpicker had contacted her a second time trying to clarify exactly how Dowd had managed to reproduce Marshall’s rather lengthy graf almost word for word. Hey, she was just talking with a friend. Right.

(Via an e-mail to Media Nation citing National Review’s Media Blog, which in turn got it from DailyKos.)


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  1. Treg

    It’s not all that clear to me what’s being said here. To me, “going back and forth,” implies a series of email exchanges. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but she’s being vague, and it’s not helping her any.

  2. Leslie

    Maybe, like Truman Capote, she has 94% recall of conversations. (Or so he claimed.) Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

  3. lkcape

    It’s still plagiarism, no matter how it is sliced and diced.

  4. Ralph Ranalli

    I can’t believe she’s sticking to this lame story. How can someone who works for the New York Times, of all places, not understand that the cover-up is almost invariably worse than the crime? Yet you almost never see people admit that what they really did was read something that someone else wrote, think “that’s a good point,” and then cut and paste it into a draft of what they were writing. Of course they intended to rewrite it in their own words, but then deadline loomed and they forgot. It’s probably one of the most forgivable forms of plagiarism. But noooo, instead it’s the old “a friend gave it to me” excuse, which doesn’t work for teenagers caught with pot in their underwear drawer and doesn’t work for Dowd here.

  5. Mr Punch

    I don’t know about Truman Capote, but is is it really that unlikely that Dowd can recall an entire paragraph (almost) verbatim? I my experience, some journalists can do this — and she is after all an outstandingly successful journalist.

  6. GFS3

    I think Ralph wins the brass ring. That’s exactly what I think happened as well.

  7. Peter Porcupine

    Mr. Punch – problem is, unless the friend was reading TPM to her, without indicating thats/he WAS reading aloud, how would Dowd capture the conversation verbatim?My own recall is at 96.8%…(Full disclosure – I LOATHE Maureen Dowd, am glad her dumb ‘Men’ book is on the $.99 cent table, and I am enjoying the kerfluffle all too much..)

  8. Steve

    Dowd’s lame story will absolutely fly. The story will soon die down if no one finds more dubious liftage. Just a little smudge on the reputation, but no serious career damage.It’s somewhat interesting to observe the trajectory of the story, but it’s about done now. There’s this little “Horrors! Columnists read liberal blogs!” sideshow that provides this little bit of unintended comedy – Steve Benen leads with the dubious “I don’t want to dwell on the controversy surrounding Maureen Dowd…” (Why’d you write the piece then, Steve?)But there’s nothing there either. The air is just about gone from this balloon.

  9. Treg

    Steve, I think that’s premature. Whether she knowingly lifted from Josh Marshall, or thought she was lifting from her “friend,” it’s still plagiarism to use the words or ideas of others without attribution.That last part is important – even if she had completely reworded it, the fact that she admits the idea came from someone else makes it plagiarism.So, I’d say to look for NYT to briefly suspend her, soon.

  10. mike_b1

    The average memory is 3 +/-2 items. For Dowd to remember a graf that lengthy that was presented as part of a back and forth conversation would truly make her exceptional. Like Einstein exceptional.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Treg: I wonder if we’re talking about two different cultures here. If an editor writes a paragraph into a reporter’s story, shows it to the reporter, the reporter approves it, and then the story is published under that reporter’s byline, has he or she committed plagiarism?

  12. Treg

    And Mike (just to beat a dead horse), it would be completely beside the point. It’s plagiarism whether she cut and pasted the text, remembered it verbatim from a conversation, or even if she had completely rephrased it. She would still have needed to say something like, “As my friend So-and-so pointed out the other day,” etc.

  13. Treg

    Dan, I see your point and I guess there is a cultural context to consider. However . . . ok, so we know anything published under Dowd’s byline may have been tinkered with by an editor at NYT – that’s a given. And as a reader, I can even look it up and find out who the editor is. But I still think the reader assumes the ideas are hers unless she cites someone else. And it is not a given to the reader that she’s getting her ideas from a friend, unless she cites the friend. Am I getting closer to the mark with that?

  14. Dan Kennedy

    Treg: I’m thinking through some of these issues myself. One thing I have observed over and over is that there are some journalistic customs we take for granted that horrify the general public when they are brought to light. It could be that the public is right and we journalists are wrong. I don’t know.Even if Dowd is telling the truth completely, what she did is wrong. And it’s plagiarism because it turned out that the paragraph came from Marshall. But if it was the friend’s words, I’m not sure I would consider it plagiarism — more like using an outside, freelance editor.I do think her editors have a right to know that she operates this way. Maybe they do.

  15. Treg

    One way I always like to look at these issues is, was the reader deceived? Readers understand (or should understand) that publications have editors, and those editors are identified in the masthead. So if an editor spruces up a news piece or an op-ed according to standard practices, we’re not being deceived. But Dowd says that passage came from a conversation with a friend of hers. The reader is deceived.

  16. Treg

    Then again, in the real world, I suppose the model I propose only goes so far, right? I think the main problem, as has been pointed out, is that her explanation just isn’t credible. So that’s coloring my interpretation.As you note in your Guardian piece, the real problem with Dowd is that she is such an over-paid hack. And this is just another manifestation of that. Good columnists use a choice quote here and there for effect, but are not overly reliant on other people’s stuff to add oomph to their columns.

  17. Rick in Duxbury

    “my friend didn’t want to be quoted; but of course i would have been happy to give credit to another writer, as i often do…”The lady doth protest too much, methinks..

  18. bostonmediawatch

    Dan Kennedy wrote “…there are some journalistic customs we take for granted that horrify the general public when they are brought to light.”Horrify? That might be a tad strong. :)It’s lazy proofreading of her own column. She cut and pasted it, intending to rewrite it and forgot to do it before she hit the send button.Or, someone else is involved in writing her column.Am I getting closer to the mark with that?Either way, the hysteria is hysterical.®

  19. Steve

    Josh Marshall has a comment up now.”I never thought it was intentional. Dowd and the Times quickly corrected it”

  20. mike_b1

    Treg, my point is that if Dowd were to say she had a verbal conversation, then at some point later wrote it down, and that graf was the result, she would be lying.It’s not just the act; the explanation matters, too.

  21. Leslie

    It’s about time for the mysterious conversationalist (or correspondent) she is protecting to step forward. If such a creature there be.

  22. Treg

    Mike, agreed.

  23. Bill Weye

    I have read the small handful of responses that MoDo has given, apparently all via email, and I’ve been kind of taken aback by the informality of her correspondence. She’s not using capitalization, not even for Josh’s name … I do the same, sometimes, but if I was writing text that I thought might be spread all over the internet, I might take things a little more seriously.

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