Is Maureen Dowd Guilty of Plagiarism?

I blame Cheney and Bush for my plagiarism.

I blame Cheney and Bush for my plagiarism.

The Infinite Monkey theorem goes something like this: “Put a dozen monkeys in a room full of typewriters and given enough time they will eventually randomly type out the complete works of Shakespeare.”  It’s a bit more complicated than that – but that’s the essence of the theorem.

So did Maureen Dowd, who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1999, randomly type the nearly identical paragraph as Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall?  Dowd, the New York Times columnist known as one of the most caustic snarks working in journalism today, is accused of plagiarism after lifting a paragraph from Marshall.

The New York Times has issued a correction at the end of Dowd’s original column – on Dick Cheney and torture.  Dowd claims to have never read Marshall’s post, but that she “heard” the offending passage from a friend and then used it in her column.  The two paragraphs are so similar that her explanation doesn’t pass the smell test.

The real test for Dowd, however, will be if this is an isolated incident or if more examples of borrowed passages are discovered.  If this is an isolated case then it is likely to blow over after the first wave of frenzied coverage (the firestorm is already brewing on the blogosphere).  But if a few more examples surface then Dowd could be in trouble.  Big trouble.

You can already hear the Republicans and conservatives sharpening their daggers hoping for a liberal sacrifice.

The New York Times doesn’t need another plagiarism story (remember Jayson Blair in 2003): Not when newspapers are on their knees and the Grey Lady is losing money by the boatload (and still struggling with whether it will have to close the Boston Globe).

I don’t buy Dowd’s explanation, but the paragraph she is accused of stealing is pretty inocuous.  Dowd is an elegant writer with a poison pen and a talent for turning a twisted phrase.  Her writing is very much based on style – so it would be surprising to find that she had a habit of stealing passages from other writers.  I think Dowd simply made a mistake and that we’ll all be able to move on shortly.

Newspapers don’t need a plagiarism scandal right now.  I’m hoping Dowd doesn’t give them one.

3 Responses to “Is Maureen Dowd Guilty of Plagiarism?”

  1. This is a pretty damning one time event for Ms. Dowd and the Times, if, indeed it happened only one time. . .

  2. Hi Wilsonoffishing:
    If it is an isolated event, I don’t see it as damning, but as a mistake. What writer doesn’t read and get inspired by others? No piece of writing sits alone. Hopefully, it will blow over.

  3. gfsnell, agreed, damning is a strong word. If no one finds any other incidents then it will probably blow over.

    I would imagine that the biggest difference betweent the two near identical “innocuous” paragraphs though, is the price per word; maybe the Times should go right to the source, hire Josh Marshall and give him Dowd’s column space. After all, if you can inspire Maureen Dowd with your writing, you should be able to bring out the best in anyone. . .

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