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John McQuaid

John McQuaid

Posted: May 18, 2009 11:30 AM

Say It Ain't So, MoDo


Did Maureen Dowd commit a firing offense by, she says, inadvertently lifting a paragraph from Talking Points Memo? I don't think so, but what happens hardly reflects well on Dowd or her column.

To recap: Dowd's Sunday column on the debate over torture contained a paragraph taken nearly word-for-word from a post by Josh Marshall. When a TPMCafe blogger pointed this out, Dowd quickly admitted error and properly attributed the relevant paragraph. The Times ran a correction.

End of story? Surely that's what the Times and Dowd want, and in all probability their quick response - far superior to the grudging, circle-the-wagons responses to similar problems in the past - will be effective.

But the response raised more questions than it answers. Critics are focusing on the fact of Marshall's words showing up in Dowd's column. But in some sense that's irrelevant. If she had known that paragraph came from TPM, it's unlikely she would have reprinted it without attribution. (On Imus today, Frank Rich cited this as a reason in her defense.)

But assuming her explanation is true, and she's soliciting input from friends and cutting-and-pasting it into columns, that's worse in some ways than cribbing from published work. It meets the dictionary definition of plagiarism: "a piece of writing that has been copied from someone else and is presented as being your own work." It's also lazy, shoddy journalism. And it's virtually undetectable.

Last year Dowd got into hot water for not attributing the reporting work of her assistant. Sunday's incident gives us an additional window on the slapdash way a MoDo column is assembled. Dowd could be using the vast resources and reach of the Times and her substantial writer's gifts to produce a great column. That's the whole idea, right? Instead, it looks like the faux-juices kids drink - perhaps 50% real Maureen Dowd, 50% other ingredients.