Plagiarism, patchwriting, Perlstein

Some people are complaining about Rick Perlstein’s new book, claiming that some passages are plagiarized.  Most of my friends think this is nonsense.

Here’s a passage from Craig Shirley’s Reagan’s Revolution:

Even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.

And from Perlstein:

The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.

Shirley:

Whenever he flew, Reagan would sit in the first row so he could talk to people as they boarded the plane.  On one occasion, a woman spotted him, embranced him, and said, “Oh Governor, you’ve just got to run for President!”  As they settled into their seats, Reagan turned to Deaver and said, “Well, I guess I’d better do it.”

Perlstein:

When Ronald Reagan flew on commercial flights he always sat in the front row.  That way, he could greet passengers as they boarded.  One day he was flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  A woman threw her arms around him and said “Oh, Governor, you’ve got to run for president!” “Well,” he said, turning to Michael Deaver, dead serious, “I guess I’d better do it.”

The second passage is cited to Shirley, the first isn’t.  But I don’t think it matters!  You shouldn’t paraphrase someone else’s book sentence by sentence, even if you cite them.  If you’re going to say exactly what they said, you should quote them.

Is this plagiarism?  It is, at the very least, patchwriting:  “restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.”  Mark Liberman at LanguageLog has a long, magisterial post about patchwriting in Perlstein’s book, pointing out some places where Shirley himself patchwrites from the New York Times.

I once came across a magazine article whose lede was patchwritten from an article of my own.  I talked to a few trusted friends about how to handle it.  Uniformly, they said:  it’s not nice, but it’s not plagiarism, and you shouldn’t accuse the other author of stealing your stuff.  In the end, I alerted the other author to the issue without accusing her, and she apologized, saying she’d done it in a hurry and didn’t realize it was so close.  Which is probably true.

So I guess it’s not plagiarism and Shirley is not going to win his $25 million lawsuit against Perlstein.  But I don’t really like it and I think when we do journalism we should strive to write our own stuff.

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2 thoughts on “Plagiarism, patchwriting, Perlstein

  1. Michael says:

    Well, it may not fit the dictionary definition of plagiarism, but to my non-literary eyes it’s clearly just changing the wording and Craig Sherley is the one who is behind the writing here.

    Imagine the scoffs that would result if someone did that to Moby Dick or something. Why should this be treated any differently?

  2. anon says:

    In the second pair, Pearlstein cites Shirley, so it isn’t plagarism. In first pair, Pearstein’s sentence is more precisely written, and contains more information that Shirley’s, so that isn’t plagarism either. In fact, the plagarism charge is part of a right wing effort to discredit Pearlstein’s book, to which you have made a your modest contribution.

    Concerning “patch writing”, popular-history books are typically “patched” together from academic works. Do you really think people shouldn’t write them?

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