Truth-telling and plagiarism

“Remember, as journalists, our job is to manipulate facts. I did it for many years. I can take any set of facts and spin you a story anyway you want. And if I’m very cynical, I can spin it in a way that I know is good for my career but is not particularly truthful to my reader.” — Chris Hedges, interviewed on the Real News Network, 2013.

Among those for whom Truth is a pillar of their political lexicon, there is a common tendency to treat it as a thing — a thing that is being revealed by a select few while concealed by many others.

But truth is also a practice and how well it is practiced by each individual cannot be determined by how much they use the word or how much reverence for Truth they might profess.

The Troubling Case of Chris Hedges,” written by Christopher Ketcham, a contributing editor at Harper’s, says Hedges “has a history of lifting material from other writers that goes back at least to his first book,” and yet this accusation is being dismissed by some of Hedges’ most loyal defenders.

At Firedoglake, Jane Hamsher writes:

The New Republic has published a hit piece on Chris Hedges that accuses him of plagiarism — without ever really documenting any direct plagiarism as far as I can tell. I’ll admit that my eyes started to glaze over as I read the 5700 word piece, so it may have crept in there and I had simply gone catatonic.

In dismissing the Ketcham piece, the thrust of Hamsher’s argument is that the article is too long to be taken seriously. “The only reason you’d publish a 5700 word long screed like this is if you really, really hated the guy and wanted to defame him and tarnish his image.”

Perhaps. But a more obvious explanation for the length of the piece is that since plagiarism is a very serious accusation to throw at any writer, it needs to be documented meticulously.

Yesterday, Hedges published his own response to the Ketcham article which he said contains statements that are “are false and attempt to damage me personally and professionally.” That sounds like he’s accusing Ketcham of defamation, although he makes no explicit threat of legal action.

Hedges’ response is far from convincing.

Ketcham’s article begins:

In early 2010, the editors at Harper’s Magazine began reviewing a lengthy manuscript submitted by Chris Hedges, a former New York Times reporter. In the piece, Hedges had turned his eye to Camden, New Jersey, one of the most downtrodden cities in the nation. Hedges’s editor at Harper’s, Theodore Ross, who left the magazine in 2011 and is now a freelance writer, was excited when he saw the draft. “I thought it was a great story about a topic — poverty — that nobody covers enough,” Ross said.

The trouble began when Ross passed the piece along to the fact-checker assigned to the story. As Ross and the fact-checker began working through the material, they discovered that sections of Hedges’s draft appeared to have been lifted directly from the work of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter named Matt Katz, who in 2009 had published a four-part series on social and political dysfunction in Camden.

Hedge’s responds:

The charge — made without any evidence and without sources about an unpublished manuscript — that passages and quotes were taken from the Inquirer series is simply untrue. The charge that I copied quotes from another reporter is also untrue. These allegations, which are very serious, should not have been made unless accompanied by textual proof. There was none. Indeed, Ketcham admits that he never read the manuscript.

For those who read Hedge’s response without referring back to Ketcham’s article, his first plea of “not guilty” might sound convincing, yet his denial is misleading.

Hedges calls this a charge “without sources,” yet the sources were identified: Theodore Ross, then an editor at Harper’s, and a “fact-checker, who remains an editor at the magazine and asked that his name not be used in this story.”

As for why Ketcham left out the textual proof in this instance (though included lots of textual evidence of plagiarism throughout the rest of his article), he explains: “I asked Harper’s for a copy of Hedges’s original manuscript, for comparison with Katz’s published pieces, but the magazine’s policy is not to share unpublished work of its writers.”

But Ketcham also directly quotes the Harper’s fact-checker saying of Hedges, “He lied to me — lied to his fact-checker.”

Further in his response, Hedges writes:

I changed the Ernest Hemingway passage in my book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning after the first edition several months before Thomas Palaima’s complaint.

How would a reader find a Hemingway passage in a book by Hedges or anyone else?

Unless one had memorized by heart everything that Hemingway had ever written, the only way of finding a Hemingway passage would be by seeing a reference to Hemingway. Right?

Not in this case. What Hedges calls a Hemingway passage, neither in its original or subsequent iterations has ever made reference to Hemingway. Had Palaima, a MacArthur Fellow and classics professor at the University of Texas, not spotted Hedges’ use of Hemingway’s words and ideas, this borrowing might have forever gone unnoticed — Hedges certainly did not welcome it being pointed out when the scholar spoke to the journalist on the phone.

“It was a very strange conversation,” says Palaima. “He kept saying that essentially what he had done was trivial. He was dismissive and belittling.” Palaima replied that as author of more than a hundred scholarly articles, reviews, and op-eds, and as an editor of a scholarly monograph series, a scholarly journal, and several books, he had “never encountered a case where an unattributed use of another intellectual’s ideas and wording was solved by altering the wording in a subsequent printing without attribution.”

According to Palaima, Hedges claimed by way of explanation that he had copied the Hemingway text into his notes and later used it, mistakenly thinking it was his own. As for not crediting Hemingway once the plagiarism had been discovered, Hedges stated that it would have been prohibitively costly for the publisher to add a credit, because the text would have to be repaginated.

Palaima was stunned. “All he had to do was add ‘As Hemingway wrote,’ and the problem would have been addressed,” Palaima told me. “Plutarch said that little details reveal the character of the man. If Hedges was found in a small matter to have further compounded his dishonesty, it makes you wonder about more important matters.”

In reference to his use of work by Ketcham’s wife, Petra Bartosiewicz, Hedges writes:

The Petra Bartosiewicz material in my column “The Terror-Industrial Complex” was sourced to Harpers and to Bartosiewicz three times. There were a few paragraphs following the sourcing that should have been set off in block quotes. Bartosiewicz’s editor at Harper’s, Luke Mitchell, called it to our attention. Mitchell asked us to fix what he described as a “formatting error” in the “much appreciated” Truthdig column that cited her work. The fix was made, in consultation with Mitchell, the next day and ran along with an editor’s not [sic]

Ketcham had written:

When asked about the Bartosiewicz passages, Hedges attributed it to “sloppy sourcing on my part. I feel badly about this, especially as Petra’s article was a first-class piece of reporting.” He wrote that the passages “should have been set off from the main body of the text as a block quote.” But he never addressed why he made so many small changes to the original text: the tweaking of some sentences and lines but not others, the adding of a hyperlink not in the original, the changing of phrases such as “my local reporter” to “a local reporter.”

Even now, Hedges has offered no explanation about the editing of text from which block quoting was supposedly the only omission.

Those who view Ketcham as a tool of the establishment in its efforts to silence a troublesome dissident, are overlooking the fact that Ketcham has several personal interests in this story.

I should note that a possible result of this piece will be the burning of my bridges at the Nation, where I know the editors and have been published; the Nation Institute, from which I have received funding for investigative journalism published in Harper’s and elsewhere; Truthdig, where I have published half-a-dozen columns and have been proud of my work; and Nation Books, Hedges’s current publisher, a house I have always respected and admired.

Ketcham could be an obedient servant of Power, but if one examines his previous work he has done a convincing job of concealing such an agenda. For instance, this is how he views Washington D.C.:

It’s a small-minded town on a hypertrophic scale, a Southern town gone Napoleonic, which is to say it’s backward and inbred and beady-eyed and paranoid while ruling over an empire.

Those who hear about Ketcham’s article and without having read it react in accordance with the dictates of the tribal mind, will likely respond in the way one of Hamsher’s commenters responded: “Thank You Jane for reading something I wouldn’t have.”

In other words, who needs to draw their own conclusions when they can rely on those of one of their favorite bloggers?

This kind of obedience to authority is depressingly commonplace among people who nevertheless identify themselves as belonging to a community of dissent.

Ketcham’s assembly of the evidence is as painstaking as it should be given the gravity of the issue, yet there will be those who nevertheless have the reaction: Hedges has an eloquent and powerful voice that should not be undermined by the distraction of a few trivial lapses in judgement.

To wit, “teddieballgame” who left a comment under Hedge’s response that says: “these are at most piddling misdemeanors that constitute a tiny fraction of one percent of an enormous and important and original body of work.”

I am not unsympathetic with that view and I don’t doubt Hedges’ convictions, yet one of the most pernicious of human frailties is our susceptibility to being swayed by the convictions of others.

The power of righteousness — something Hedges possesses in abundance — is that it propels a wheel upon which with each turn a preacher and his congregation reinforce each other’s faith. This faith is invariably dubbed Truth.

Those who wield Truth as their sword, have little patience for critics, since criticism is perceived as a challenge of their righteousness.

The suggestion that Hedges is a plagiarist can be treated as rejection of his political analysis of our world, but what it really calls into question is his integrity — something that both he and those who admire his work, should want to protect.

Plagiarism is in spirit a kind of theft, but like other forms of theft that might be viewed as petty, the culprit believing he has done little harm, if successful in shaking off his accusers, is all the more likely to continue in this behavior.

In his 2003 op-ed, Tom Palaima wrote:

Historians and journalists, in particular, are like police officers assigned to protect for us the truth about the past and the present.

More than ever, we need honest cops. Plagiarism is one indicator that a cop is less than honest.

Update: Christopher Ketcham and The New Republic have now responded to Chris Hedge’s response.

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11 thoughts on “Truth-telling and plagiarism

  1. TColwell

    If Hedges was going to plagiarize Hemingway, it’s only fair he picked
    “A Farewell to Arms,” since Hemingway himself plagiarized that title from
    George Peel.

  2. H.Rust

    As Plutarch said, “little details reveals the character of a man. ( of a campaign ) If it is not about silencing a dissident, it must be about distracting from Hedges work, which remains
    as important as ever. Plagiarism or not.

  3. Paul Woodward Post author

    Even if Hedges feels like he is the victim of a malicious attack (although I don’t believe that is the case), I suspect that he will be even more disappointed to observe that so many of his admirers care so little about whether he is a plagiarist.

    This suggests that his audience appeal is mostly with an audience that wants its own convictions confirmed. To such an audience, the intellectual honesty of the preacher matters much less than the sweet words of the gospel, upholding the community of the faithful.

  4. H.Rust

    Paul, now you are waffling. The difference between what Hedges has to say and what the religious preacher is fantasizing is too big. The difference is nonstop plagiarism, from ancient Sanskrit texts, via various Middle Eastern religious movements, including lately Judaism, Christianity and the youngster, Islam, – and the occasional repeat that may have
    slipped in.

  5. Paul Woodward Post author

    Maybe English isn’t your first language — sorry if you tripped up over my metaphor.

  6. josieamilburn

    And when all is said and done, I am still left with the feeling that I do not know all there is to know to make a judgemtn on Christopher Hedges that led Mr. Ketcham to his conclusions. I read what he had to say and I read Mr. Hedges response. If he is a plagiarist, that would sadden me, contrary to what Mr. Woodward thinks of Hedges admirers.

  7. Paul Woodward Post author

    I didn’t make a blanket statement about all Hedges’ admirers — I wrote “so many of his admirers,” i.e. the numerous people leaving comments that indicated they viewed the accusations as trivial.

    Among the comments at TNR were these examples:

    “blortaber” — “A couple of jealous, petty freelancers, the Mr. and Mrs. Ketchams trying to make a mountain out of their perfidious, envious little molehill”

    “teddieballgame” — “these are at most piddling misdemeanors that constitute a tiny fraction of one percent of an enormous and important and original body of work.”

    “thomaspartnerandpetradog” — “it’s difficult for me to expend very much concern about writing shortcuts that ignore the niceties of attribution”

    “Poeme1527” — “I don’t care where he got the language from if it’s used to help others understand what’s going on in this country. And neither should anybody else.”

    “raylward” — “Plagiarism in the service of the truth is a relatively minor offense”

  8. H.Rust

    Paul, I fail to see the “metaphor” that you claim to have let loose. Below the bottom line, aren’t we all plagiarists to a certain extent. Albert Einstein has been shown to have relied
    heavily on the work of others that researched before him. Does that make him a plagiarist?
    Or is the sequence of the words used the deciding factor?

  9. Paul Woodward Post author

    You don’t seem to understand what plagiarism is. It isn’t simply making use of the words and ideas of someone else — it is claiming those as ones own by giving no attribution. Reuse is not the issue. Deception is the issue.

  10. Tom Palaima

    Thank you for this. It is sober and accurate.

    Hedges’ defense and Ketcham’s response to it both divert us from the point that surprised me 11 years ago.

    I write for The Texas Observer and a rundown of my features and reviews and features in the Times Higher Education and my own articles and commentaries on war will prove that I approached this all at first as a sympathetic attempt to warn Hedges and PublicAffairs that the plagiarism detected by others besides me in War Is a Force was leading people to dismiss Hedges’ arguments without taking them seriously.

    Eventually Hedges and PublicAffairs insisted they had had solved the ‘problem’ of the first plagiarized passage by creating a second still plagiarized passage that was harder to detect. They offered the excuse that making changes would be too costly, having already made changes that were much more extensive than adding a phrase like, “As Hemingway says” vel sim. And they pilloried the messenger, me, for pointing out what they should have learned and made second nature in high school.

    As Paul Woodward says, “Deception is the issue.” The other issue is using unattributed the work of others. It denies them their due credit and prevents readers from understanding the component parts of an argument and becoming better informed by going and reading them.

  11. H.Rust

    The meaning of plagiarism is clearly understood, but I find this ( in my eyes ) petty exchange quite amusing. In the face of grand deception that is poured all over us on a daily basis, a storm in a teacup.

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