A piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times:
The former New York Times editor Jill Abramson — one of the most famous names in American journalism — said yesterday that she had offered private apologies in the wake of a plagiarism scandal surrounding her new book, which is partly about maintaining ethical journalistic standards.
She did not issue a public apology, however, and fell back on the formula that “mistakes were made”.
The furore surrounding her book — Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts — erupted on Wednesday after Michael Moynihan, a reporter for Vice News, accused Abramson, 64, of copying published material.
On Twitter, he highlighted several instances in which she had repeated passages from articles in Time Out, The New Yorker and Columbia Journalism Review, almost word for word, with no attribution.
In one example, Moynihan cited a description of Gavin McInnes, a founder of Vice Magazine, that had appeared in the Ryerson Review of Journalism: “McInnes wrote a column in The American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan. In the magazine, he called young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his cronies use often) who’ll believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with light skin.”
In Abramson’s book, a similar passage reads: “He [McInnes] wrote a column in The American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan, calling young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his ilk often used) who would believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with light skin.”
Abramson initially accused Vice of attacking her because it was not happy with her scrutiny of the organisation in her 544-page book. By the following day, however, as the accusations spread online, she acknowledged that “the language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text”. She said corrections would be made.
In an interview with National Public Radio she admitted that she “fell short” in attributing her sources. Rather than issue a public apology, however, she was quoted by the Vox news website as saying: “I had a fact-checker and several people helping me with research, and I did many drafts of many chapters full of factual materials, and, you know, mistakes were made.”
Her non-apology did not surprise Moynihan. He told The Sunday Times yesterday: “It’s the reaction I expected: usually you blame the researcher, which is a risky one because then you have to admit that you don’t do your own work, and then you just blame the end-notes.”
He added: “I couldn’t care less about toppling the doyenne of American journalism. It’s just wrong to plagiarise. It’s as plain as that.”
Asked yesterday why she had not apologised, Abramson replied in an email to The Sunday Times: “You are wrong in fact. I have apologised directly to some of the journalists.”
However, Ian Frisch, a freelance journalist, who had accused her of plagiarising his work at least seven times in her book, said he had not heard from her. “I would hope that she takes the necessary steps to correct everything that she’s done wrong,” he said. “Whether she wants to admit to plagiarism is up to her, but I do feel the problems in this situation are quite wide-ranging.”
Frisch accused Abramson of using quotes he had been given as if they had been given to her. He said that he was keen to see the ebook version of Merchants of Truth, which has now reportedly been amended.
In 2011 Abramson became the first female editor of The New York Times. However, she left in 2014 after clashing with staff and now teaches creative writing at Harvard. The new controversy has come hot on the heels of her confession that she never used a tape recorder when interviewing people.
“I’ve never recorded. I’m a very fast note-taker. When someone kind of says the ‘it’ thing that I have really wanted, I don’t start scribbling right away,” she told The Cut magazine.
“I have an almost photographic memory and so I wait a beat or two while they’re onto something else, and then I write down the previous thing they said.”
The pause, she said, was to stop the subject getting nervous about what they’d just revealed.
News organisations quickly warned journalism students to avoid this technique.
When the plagiarism storm hit the next day, one wag cruelly tweeted: “I guess Jill Abramson doesn’t need to write anything down because other people already have.”
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