Monday, April 16, 2007

Plagiarism sucks: Katie should quit

Turns out I have something in common with the Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey Zaslow: we've both been plagiarized...

If you haven't heard, CBS News' Katie Couric recently did a "Katie's Notebook" piece, performed in the first person ["I still remember when I first got my library card...'] that, it turns out, was written by her producer.

Surprise, surprise. Katie's stuff isn't written by her.

Whoops. Turns more out, Katie's producer, Melissa McNamara, didn't even write it (bizarre twin plagiarism angle... oh dear). I've read about 15 different takes on the whole matter, and kinda like Slate's tone/angle the best.

That's the story. Fine. But here's what none of the things I've read so far have offered... Something that you'll get right here, only at TinkerX -- the inside scoop (first person, written by me, not my producer) on what it's like to be plagiarized.
I used to consult full-time. Now I do it a bit on the side (yes, my boss knows; I'm not that dumb... about that.) While consulting full-time, I wrote lots of articles and got lots of essays posted just about anywhere I could to get my name/email/URL out there. I did it in order to generate business, establish "my personal brand," and get good SEO for my blog and company Web site. So... long story short, lots of Andy Havens' marketing crud on the Web.

About two years ago, I get a call from a guy I've never met. But he knew me from some of my legal marketing articles. How cool. He recalled my particular (peculiar?) brand of wit and wisdom. He specifically recalled a piece I wrote for my good buddy Larry Bodine at the LawMarketing Portal back in 2004, about a year prior to his calling me.

He wanted to know if I was aware that another fellow was using this material, almost word-for-word, in his hand-outs at a professional marketing seminar.

Gulp. No. I was not.

My reader faxed me the materials. Yup. Almost exactly the same stuff. In fact, it even had the same cheesy clip-art that Larry pasted into the story (Hi, Larry!).

I contacted the fellow. I told him what I'd discovered and asked him what was up. He told me... that the piece had been put together by one of his subordinates.

It had his name on it. The name of his marketing firm was his name. The presentation at the gig where my reader had found the piece was given by this guy, and it was his name on the program. He explained that his workers "assembled" lots of his marketing material (hand-outs, fliers, Powerpoints) for him.

Then he assured me that the fellow in question would be fired. That he (the owner) took this sort of thing very seriously and had a zero-tolerance policy about plagiarism, and that I could rest assured that it wouldn't happen again.

I told him that what happened between him and his staff was his business. I just wanted to be sure that anything I'd written was attributed to me.

He, again, made the point about firing the subordinate. He said something about him being "a relatively new guy."

Again, I said, "That's up to you. It's your company. How you handle it internally is your business. I just want your word, since it's your name on my work, that this won't happen again."

He, again, told me that the person in question would be fired.

He didn't get my point. I said, "I don't need you to do that. I need you to tell me you will be responsible for making sure this doesn't happen." He agreed to that, still not getting it, I think, and we never spoke again.

I hung up the phone feeling very, very shaken.

Why? Because one of two things had happened.

1) He lied to me. Which, if I had to bet money, I'd bet on. For a whole string of reasons that I can get into based on the professional services marketing industry, how we come up with stuff, what we let our "people" do for us, etc. etc. But that's my gut. I don't think there was "a new guy." I think it was a put-on to get me to go away.

2) He told the truth, and fired some kid who'd made a mistake. A bad mistake, yeah. And a mistake that, frankly, isn't one where firing is an inappropriate reaction. But I think that, on some level, if somebody on my staff had done something like that... I would have blamed myself a bit more than this guy seemed to. And if my name was on something like that...
I'd take it a lot more seriously than Katie et CBS al seem to be doing.

The date on which that post went up on the CBS blog page now reads:
Correction: The April 4 Notebook was based on a "Moving On" column by Jeffrey Zaslow that ran in The Wall Street Journal on March 15 with the headline, "Of the Places You'll Go, Is the Library Still One of Them?" Much of the material in the Notebook came from Mr. Zaslow, and we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece. We offer our sincere apologies for the omission.

We "apologize for omitting... " Err... Yah. McNamara (bio still live on CBS site... interesting) was fired for "omitting." Sins of omission. That's kinda funny. Where I come from, we call plagiarism "stealing." Which is a sin of "commission." You know... walk into a store, take something, leave without paying. Oh. I guess that's kind of an omission. Never mind...

Here's the thing: the (maybe) kid that lifted my essay, and/or his boss... that's pretty minor stuff. One of the reasons I didn't make a stink is that my "personal brand" has a good dollop of live-and-let-live. I'm a peaceable guy. The piece was a fun little deal that, I hope, sent a few readers to my site/blog. Making a big stink would've been more trouble than it was worth.

And yet... and yet... I really, really wish that the dude had said, "What can I do, personally, to make this up to you? Can I send you an Omaha steak? Or make a contribution to a charity in your name? Can I put a mention of your services into my next seminar kit?" Nope. Nothing.

And who is he? Some small-time, Kinko's-materials consultant like me. But to make it good, he should have offered something.

But... Who is Katie? She's the $15 million spokes-face on one of the Big Three evening news shows. News. Not fashion. Not punditry. Not opinion. News. You know... that thing with journalism and facts and stuff.

Katie's post clearly made it seem as if she wrote it. The op-ed "feel" of a story that starts with, "I still remember..." is unmistakably intended to leverage her $15 million-ness into getting us to pay attention to what is, frankly, a pretty lame, puffy piece.

So if Katie didn't write it, but felt OK about using it glommed onto her image/ego to begin with, and then was (as far as the public is concerned) the face of the company that did the plagiarizing... what should we expect from that organization?

Right. Fire the producer. Not the one worth $60,000/day. Not the face we trust (who apparently doesn't read the WSJ). Not the one who clearly doesn't write her own notebook/blog, even when it's in the first person. Not the one who didn't take any responsibility for plagiarism, but who had "Editors" apologize for "omissions."

Is this what Katie wanted for her career? Regardless of the plagiarism... is this what she signed up for? To be part of a news team that writes her "personal thoughts" and then covers for her to an extent that is, frankly, grotesque? Is her own sense of what she brings to this enterprise so withered that she can't even sign her name to the apology?

Quit, Katie. Just quit. Not because you're really responsible for the plagiarism. I don't think you are, nor do I think you should be fired. The ding-dongs in charge at CBS are even less in control and less worthy of it than are you. But in the immediate aftermath of this situation, nobody's first response was, "Yoiks! These words came out of Katie's mouth... she should be the one to apologize!"

That they didn't -- that you didn't -- is bad. Real bad. Prove to all the kids in my History of Advertising class, and all the junior copywriters out there, that the Top Dog cares about this. That in the age of easy, Internet Ctrl+C / Ctrl+V, the people we turn to to make sense out of our lives are ones who take that responsibility seriously. That when we turn on the TV to watch somebody talk about war, government, education, health and all kinds of other issues... those issues mean something when applied to her own field.
All I wanted, when somebody stole the words out'n my mouth (er... page), was for the guy in charge to take responsibility. His version of that was to fire the kid who did the lifting. That didn't cut it for me, and I don't think it cuts it for Katie.

The $15 million bucks stop somewhere. And it ain't on the desk of a junior producer.

So, Katie... Make a point about responsibility and theft. Quit in protest over how poorly CBS has handled this situation.

And, since that won't ever happen, how about you just personally sign your "mea" to the editorial "culpa"?
[Note: I will almost never be this smarmy (mean, call it what you will) again on this blog. I don't like the tone I've chosen, and am *this* close to not publishing the post. But I really, really hate plagiarism and really, really don't like it when crap like this doesn't get taken seriously enough by the people in charge. For those of you who prefer my usual, light-hearted, pseudo-intellectual side... it will resume shortly. My apologies for being more churlish than I really rather prefer.]

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