One of the strangest adjustments for those of us who have written mostly for publication in print venues is the different nature of “publishing” on the Web. The ethics of revising something that you find out is mistaken, want to reword or to take back is complicated. And with Google’s cache feature you can’t ever really, fully delete your “drafts.”
But to what extent are words printed in political blogs owned by anyone? I am very traditional in the belief that these words, written by me, are copyrighted by me (see notice at the bottom of this page). I would think that most bloggers would feel the same way, i.e., “Don’t quote me unless you cite me.”
But in the world of politics, this can become an intricate and ambiguous question. Case in point: A few months ago, Representative Sherrod Brown of Ohio (D-13th Dist.) wrote a letter to Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) concerning the nomination to the Supreme Court of Samuel Alito, and specifically enumerating what Brown represented as Alito’s poor record on labor issues and workers’ rights. Apparently, almost the entire letter was what in traditional publishing would be called plagiarized–that is, it was originally either the ideas or the actual words of a political blogger, Nathan Newman, of nathannewman.org. The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper revealed the “plagiarism” after officials from DeWine’s office alerted them.
It seems like a straightforward story. As I teach my students, “If you quote someone, put the words in quotes. If you use someone else’s ideas, cite them.” None of them has ever retorted: “But the President does it all the time!” As I discuss in my book BLOGWARS, it is hardly a secret that a large amount of political speech credited to politicians, whether in the form of books*, addresses, letters, memos, policy directives, or debate points, is written by people other than the politicians themselves, from media consultants to staffers to professional speechwriters. There is some cynicism about this process, but nobody thinks of it as a scandal. Not even the most antagonistic and aggressive political reporter will pummel a political candidate by demanding, “Wasn’t that speech written by your speechwriter? How dare you pretend those words are yours?”
UPDATE: To give a speech written by someone you have hired to write for you is certainly not plagiarism. The rules of scholarship (and grammar) are not the rules of law. (I once knew a man who listed on his resume all the “autobiographies” of politicians he had written.) But some of us lament that politicians seem increasingly unable to walk, chew gum, or give a speech without a staff of writers and consultants.** And I feel discomfort at seeing a pol waxing eloquent about some personal anecdote that is the stuff and the words of another mind. Are we electing the man or the facade? See a chapter on this subject in John Hamilton’s Casanova was a Book Lover.
The same loose rules of attribution might apply to political blogs, if the blogger doesn’t mind or in fact wants to be a very untransparent ghostwriter. Nathan Newman, far from being angry about the “plagiarism,” attacked Senator DeWine and the newspaper story itself, arguing the following:
Who the hell cares if a Brown staffer copied a factual listing of legal cases into a letter? This was hardly a literary blog post using deathless prose for the ages. It was the facts that made this post interesting, not it’s literary value.
But in typical manner, the response of the media is to ignore the substance and focus on some stupid “he said, she said” story.
Guess what, Sherrod Brown’s staffer was lazy and didn’t do a rewrite of my blog post or put in an attribution line. But the report on this story was even lazier, doing an easy “call the campaigns for quotes” story instead of the harder work of dealing with the substance of Alito’s anti-worker legal record.
So the reporter saying that Brown’s letter “was plagiarized” is flatly inaccurate. The reality is that politicians used public domain sources in a host of ways and using my blog post was no different.
We are on new ground here. A purist like me would love to be able to say that the uncited lifting of material, no matter what the source, the destination, or the outcome, is always wrong. But if almost all other forms of traditional political speech are falsely–but with a wink!–attributed to an author other than the original, then why not the content of political blogs?
Perhaps we will see the emergence of another role for political bloggers: open-source or public domain speechwriter. I still think, however, that the authentic creator should at least be consulted about and approve of what we might call the adaptation of his or her words.
*John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage is the most famous example, written by a committee: JFK, however, had no qualms about accepting the Pulitzer Prize for it.
**In point of fact, the Emperor Nero was (allegedly) the first Western politician who did not write his own speeches.
Originally posted January 23, 2006 at PolicyByBlog