First it’s Juan Williams blames the researcher. Then it’s Williams blames the “intern.” Suddenly his “researcher” became his “intern.” In the course of one column in The Hill, which was corrected and explained, followed by The Hill carefully investigating months worth of Williams’ columns to determine any existence of a pattern of “lifting,” by Salon and Politico standards, he became a plagiarist. Politico‘s headline this morning: “Juan Williams lifts work, blames the assistant.” And Salon‘s last night: “Juan Williams’ plagiarism problem.”
Only it’s a matter of interpretation. One publication’s “plagiarism” is another’s “honest mistake.”
“Is there anything lamer than blaming a researcher for plagiarism?” writes Politico‘s Alexander Burns on Twitter this morning. As a matter of fact, there is. How about calling something plagiarism that isn’t? Salon broke the original story last night with the aforementioned overhyped headline. Has this happened to Williams before? Is there a pattern? Actually, no. At least not shown by way of example in either story published in Salon or Politico. Williams, also a Fox News Contributor, did not try to hide anything. He made a mistake and the publication did everything in its power to correct it, including being honest with readers in an editor’s note just as Williams was with editors of The Hill.
The events unfold
Williams’ column was published Feb 18. In the column, as reported by Politico, a researcher had given Williams information that Williams thought were the researcher’s own words. Williams reworded it some, not realizing that the researcher had received the information from the Center for American Progress. CAP sent an email to The Hill the next day. But the recipient was on vacation and higher ups were told about it Feb 28. The Hill then moved quickly but methodically and Editor Hugo Gurdon (not “Gordon” as Politico has it) spoke with CAP on Feb 28, March 1 and March 2 and completed revisions to the article done on March 2.
The Hill took other steps not mentioned in the Politico or Salon stories — they reviewed months of Williams’ work to make sure there was no pattern of errors.
“CAP contacted us after Juan’s column came out to say several paragraphs were from one of their articles,” Gurdon wrote FishbowlDC by email. “The complaint was justified and we looked through all Juan’s columns back to October to make sure there was no pattern. There was nothing in them to suggest this was anything other than an isolated incident.”
Gurdon called Williams to learn more. “When I called Juan he was shocked, and after looking into it he explained that he’d used what he thought were his researcher’s words in his column, only slightly changed, not realizing that what he’d been sent were paragraphs from the CAP article,” Gurdon wrote to FBDC. “I spoke with CAP, and all parties agreed that the article should be revised to make clear what had happened, what came from CAP, and how we had responded. The whole incident is regrettable, but it seems clearly to have been an inadvertent mistake.”
Politico scoffs at the idea that this was any kind of innocent error. In a story by Dylan Byers, they categorize Williams’ remarks to Salon as “blaming the assistant.” Williams told Alex Seitz-Wald, “I was writing a column about the immigration debate and had my researcher look around to see what data existed to pump up this argument and he sent back what I thought were his words and summaries of the data,” Williams told Seitz-Wald. “I had never seen the CAP report myself, so I didn’t know that the young man had in fact not summarized the data but had taken some of the language from the CAP report.”
What’s damning, however, is what went beyond Politico‘s story, which was only an aggregate to Seitz-Wald’s piece. On Twitter, after Burns employed the word “plagiarism” to describe what Williams did, he appeared to get in Williams’ head to explain what Williams really meant by his explanation. Burns, who also wrote that Williams had “blamed an intern,” continued, “In other words: ‘I didn’t intend to plagiarize, I just intended to copy and paste my column from a research assistant’s work.’” Byers retweeted Burns’ faux Williams thought bubble. And finally, a perfect ending to an exaggerated mess of stories: Ex-White House aide Tommy Vietor followed suit with the word “plagiarism” and had this to conclude: “Plagiarizing something really, really boring.”
We agree, actually. It is boring. But the way the events unfolded and how the situation was resolved is also not plagiarism.