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.
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.”
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.