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Come On, Maureen

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Why is the cover-up so often worse than the crime? For instance, let’s look at Maureen Dowd’s now-famous column in yesterday’s NYT. You can no longer find the original version on-line. In it, she wrote:

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The only problem is that at his Talking Points Memo blog on Thursday, Josh Marshall had already written:

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Okay, so maybe Maureen Dowd actually reads the major political blogs and gets ideas from them. That’s fine. Just give them credit when you quote them. She didn’t. The problem is, here’s her after-the-fact explanation of how it happened that she didn’t, as written to The Nytpicker:

josh is right. I didn’t read his blog last week, and didn’t have any idea he had made that point until you informed me just now. i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent — and I assumed spontaneous — way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column. but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me. we’re fixing it on the web, to give josh credit, and will include a note, as well as a formal correction tomorrow.

The correction is on-line, as you can see if you click on the Dowd link above. But really, this is such an implausible explanation. The pity is, it was as fine a column by Dowd as I read in ages.

Here’s a portion of Mark Liberman’s analysis of the explanation at Language Log:

Let’s try a little (thought) experiment in verbal short-term memory. First, find a friend. Then, find a reasonably complex sentence about 45 words long, expressing a cogent and interesting point about an important issue — say this one from a story in today’s New York Times: “But the billions in new proposed American aid, officials acknowledge, could free other money for Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, at a time when Pakistani officials have expressed concern that their nuclear program is facing a budget crunch for the first time, worsened by the global economic downturn.”

Now call your friend up on the phone, and have a discussion about the topic of the article. In the course of this conversation, slip in a verbatim performance of the selected sentence. Then ask your friend to write an essay on the topic of the discussion. (OK, this is a thought experiment, right?)

How likely is it that the selected sentence will find its way, word for word, into your friend’s essay?

Actually, there’s a prior question, which is whether your friend will have stopped the conversation to ask why you’re suddenly talking in such a writerly way. Anyhow, keeping all this in mind, read the follow three brief passages. [What follows is Dowd’s quote above, Josh Marshall’s prior quote, and Dowd’s explanation.] …

As a college professor, I’ve heard many excuses for plagiarism over the years, but I don’t believe that I’ve ever heard one quite that lame.

Categories: Newspapers
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