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Another Star Has Fallen

Christopher HedgesIt looks as if another star has fallen

This evening I read a very disturbing story in The New Republic that, if even partially true, could bring down one of the most respected voices in independent Journalism.

After reading it I immediately went in search of other sources that might somehow dispel and disprove the allegations so exhaustively documented by Christopher Ketcham.

As I began skimming a couple of other writer's refutations of the NR article, my heart began to sink. The refutations were largely ad hominem attacks on the messenger. No one seemed to regard the massive citations as more than merely too long and annoying.

They clearly didn't want to examine the evidence on its own merits independent of the venue in which it appeared, the comments of Kelly McBride, who runs the Ethics Department at the journalism school the Poynter Institute said:

“These examples suggest not inadvertent plagiarism, but carefully thought out plagiarism meant to skirt the most liberal definition of plagiarism."

 Nor was any challenge made of the conclusions of Robert Drechsel, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the English and writing professors Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard's concerns over Hedges' ‘patchwriting.’  It seems according to their reading of the material  (and mine) that Hedges was clearly in violation of journalistic and literary ethics. Nobody wants this stuff to go away more than I do. Still Evidence is evidence as well as peer assessments.

I have done some teaching and am familiar with students' often halfhearted attempts to plagiarize by "camouflaging" the looted copy with Thesaurus substitutions and sometimes comical improvisations they thought up themselves. I'm not going to belabor the already amply cited comparisons from the NR article. I leave that up to the reader to read himself. I personally find them pretty damning. The examples cited by Ketcham remind me of the work of some of my students in days past.

Back when Martin Luther King Jr. was plagiarizing wholesale for his doctorate at Boston University, his professors might have been forgiven for missing his barefaced theft of the work of others. There was no Google search back then. I attend classes at Lincoln University in Missouri, one of the first black land grant colleges in the country. The classes I attend are held in Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Hall. I find it ironic that, based on his academic record, Martin would not even be allowed to take classes in this building reverently bearing his own name. I find his plagiarism far more disturbing to me than his second most infamous activity: getting drunk and beating the shit out of white hoes at the hotel room orgies he enjoyed so much.

I don't know what is most disturbing about this Hedges affair: sloppiness in omitting citing sources, dishonestly taking of credit for the work of others or the hubris to think such obvious theft would never be questioned by adoring, uncritical fans and critics. either way he's got a lot of 'splainin' to do.

I think the thing that makes plagiarism so egregious is it's pettiness. I actually have trouble understanding the temptation not to attribute sources. Of course I'm a nobody whom nobody seriously regards and whose opinions hardly register a blip on the national literary Richter scale. I am delighted to bring a chorus of other voices more established and eloquent than my own into any discussion I am leading or any paper I am writing.

Of course even more pernicious is the presentation of an interesting perception, comparison or metaphor that echoes an original idea that has already been thought up by your betters and presenting it as original on your part.

Of all the citations in the article the one that is the most evidently shaky for me is his "lifting" of the quote from Hemingway.

The words seem ot have been sufficiently altered ("camouflaged" to Ketcham's way of thinking) to make them solely immune from prosecution. Yet the originality of the idea and the power of the comparison between the idealism of war and the brutal reality of the names is a beautiful original thought by Hemingway.

"Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates."
Ernest Hemingway

 Hedges reworking it in his own using very similar words and cadences disrespects Pappa's work and his own. Do you think we were all familiar enough with the passage that it needed no reference or attribution?

Hedges is no slouch when it comes to the originality of his thoughts and words. If he couldn't come up with a better way to say it, he should have just quoted the master verbatim and moved on rather than plagiarize an original thought and letting people think that moving passage was original with him.

Now in matters of little consequence, where originality and literary style are not at issue a little plagiarism might be permitted.
Hey, I plagiarized Wikipedia the other day when, as part of an article I was writing, I wrote, "Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany  (6 May 1882 – 20 July 1951), full name Friedrich Wilhelm Victor August Ernst, was the last Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire."

I just dragged and dropped that sucker whole, without citation. Since there were no special literary flourishes and no unique or controversial material presented I felt fully justified in just lifting it. Sue me.

The thing I find so difficult about those who routinely plagiarize is that it seems so petty and selfishly small minded, especially to a mind as brilliant and expansive as Christopher Hedges. Certain temptations I have a real problem identifying with, not out of any moralist code requiring self control. Physical and sexual addiction I can well understand but certain emotional and intellectual infractions I find harder to figure out--especially in someone who has a choice.

It is interesting to note that one of the accusations against the NR and its author is that they are carrying water for the Middle-Liberal Democrats and the Right who would like nothing better than to bring Hedges down. If anything would cause a man to pause before even contemplating an infraction as serious to a journalist as plagiarism, wouldn't you think it would be the sharp knives in the hands of his establishment critics? Wouldn't that be all the more cause for pause? I'd make sure every damn 't' was crossed and every 'i' was dotted, twice!

Men of far higher consequence have been taken down over matters of far less significance.

Elliot Spitzer seemed the only prosecutor with ample authority, integrity and enough fire in his belly to take down the Wall Street heavy hitters. Had he remained our politics and economy as well as the business culture might look far different. Well he did have this one little problem...

Scott Ritter (another one of my heroes) blew the whistle on three presidents in the build up to the Iraq War. He would have been a continuing thorn in everyone's side until he decided to show his little pepe to an agent posing as a 15-year-old.

And so it goes (citing Kurt Vonnegut here). Unless the Progressives can come up with some battle cry other than "Shoot the damn messenger!" I think the career of arguably the best commentator of the current social/political scene may have experienced a mortal wound. The real pity of it is that it appears to be self inflicted.

Author's note:

In my attempt to get this out the door in a timely manner, I was required to skim over some material that perhaps should have been read in greater detail. I'm sure my critics will not spare me from the pointing out of places I may be in error.

UPDATE: Hedges response has just been published.


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