Last Wednesday, I was on assignment at a high school basketball game in Chicago’s north suburbs, conducting interviews for a magazine profile about one of the nation’s top young recruits, when I received a startling text message from a fellow journalist: “Jill Abramson bit from one of your stories.”
In disbelief, I pulled up Twitter, where Vice News correspondent Michael C. Moynihan had just revealed his findings: In her new book Merchants of Truth, Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, had apparently plagiarized from several sources. Moynihan, who had previously revealed journalist Jonah Lehrer’s fabrications, presented examples of portions of text from the New Yorker, the Columbia Journalism Review and others, including a Time Out piece I wrote in 2010 about Vice‘s Jason Mojica, that were nearly identical to writing Abramson had published, with minor changes and inadequate attribution, in Merchants of Truth. Writer Ian Frisch later pointed out seven examples in which Abramson cribbed from his 2014 profile of Vice’s Thomas Morton. Even before the plagiarism revelations, Abramson’s book — an examination of two legacy media companies (the Times and the Washington Post) and two “upstarts” (Vice and Buzzfeed) —had come under scrutiny for apparent reporting and factual errors.
The irony was thick. Here was a veteran of the industry, a Harvard journalism lecturer no less, getting facts wrong in a book about “the fight for facts” in contemporary news. More seriously, in the course of wagging a finger at new media, Abramson had committed one of the industry’s most unforgivable transgressions — stealing the writing of other journalists.
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I sat in the bleachers of the high school gymnasium stunned. Abramson was someone I revered, and I had been looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Merchants of Truth after reading an excerpt in New York magazine. I was struck by the frankness with which she wrote of being fired by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. — and the integrity she showed in that difficult moment. “He handed me a press release announcing that I had decided to leave the Times,” she writes. “I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Arthur, I’ve devoted my entire career to telling the truth, and I won’t agree to this press release. I’m going to say I’ve been fired.’” She ends the excerpt reporting that the once-ascendant digital media companies — Vice and Buzzfeed among them — have recently missed financial targets. “Of course, as I learned,” she writes, “the picture can change in an instant.”
For Abramson, the picture changed in an instant midway through her appearance on Fox News last Wednesday evening. Host Martha MacCallum began questioning Abramson about the accusations of plagiarism “just surfacing on Twitter.” A Fox engineer cut to a split screen: Abramson’s worried face beside the document Moynihan had tweeted, which compared my writing to the version from Abramson’s book. How very strange it was to see a mundane portion of a nine-year-old story that I could scarcely recall having written being held up to help the discerning viewers of Fox News understand that Jill Abramson was a plagiarist. How surreal to be suddenly and unwittingly mixed up in such a scandal with a figure I had long held in high esteem.
The most unsettling part of the night was the way Abramson brushed off the plagiarism charges like so much dirt on her shoulder. “I don’t think it’s an issue at all,” she told MacCallum. Later she seemed to change her mind, tweeting, “I take seriously the issues raised and will review the passages in question.” The next day, Abramson released a statement, in which she said, “The notes don’t match up with the right pages in a few cases and this was unintentional and will be promptly corrected. The language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text. This, too, will be fixed.”
In the days that followed, Abramson gave interviews to Vox and CNN. She unconvincingly sidestepped definitions of plagiarism upheld by the Times and Harvard, contending she is guilty of little more than sloppiness. She also claimed Vice is “waging an oppo campaign” against her book. Amid all the equivocation and attempts to duck the plagiarist label, Abramson still had not sufficiently explained how my writing and that of several other journalists ended up running nearly word-for-word in her book. I didn’t feel personally aggrieved, as some colleagues believed I rightfully should. But I did think I was owed straight answers. So late last week, I requested an interview with Abramson through Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Merchants of Truth.
On Monday afternoon, Abramson phoned me from Harvard’s campus, where she would be teaching an introduction to journalism seminar. According to the syllabus for Abramson’s Spring 2019 workshop “Journalism in the Age of Trump,” a copy of which a student, Hannah Gais, tweeted, Merchants of Truth is assigned as required reading.
Jake Malooley: I understand this has been a rough week for you, so I appreciate your willingness to talk.
Jill Abramson: Sure. Can I just start with something? And I know we’re on the record, but I just wanted to start and apologize to you directly and personally for, you know, using material from your Time Out Chicago article about Jason Mojica, and failing to have a footnote crediting the article. That was a sloppy error. I in no way meant to steal your work. And, you know, I feel terrible about, you know, an error. I own it. It’s my mistake. And I’m glad you got in touch, ’cause I didn’t know how to reach you. I tried to reach everybody involved in this mess who I might have somehow hurt. And, you know, I just wanted to assure you that the oversight has been corrected. I cite Time Out Chicago in the text and in the footnote with your name. I just wanna, you know, be consistent. I’ve said anytime a legitimate mistake or error is pointed out to me, when I check into it, if I have made a mistake, I do what I always told any journalist colleagues or my students to do, which is to correct immediately.
I appreciate the apology. I do want you to know how strange it’s been having my name and my work associated with a plagiarism scandal, especially one involving someone of your stature. Why, though, do you think you haven’t offered a public apology — not just to the journalists involved, but also to readers who pre-ordered your book?
You know, I certainly feel [for] anyone who sees the book or my work irreparably stained by these few mistakes. And I’m heartsick about them. Of course, I’m sorry. I’m saying I’m sorry to readers and anybody who feels aggrieved. I had no intention to take anybody’s work without credit or to make any factual errors. I’ve tried to do the only thing I can, which is to be transparent about them and to correct them. Of course, I’m sorry.
With regard to intention, that’s an important point. Plagiarism, with or without intention, is still plagiarism. Even if you didn’t intend to do this, intention doesn’t really matter.
Well, yes, it does actually. Yes it does.
Isn’t inadvertent plagiarism still plagiarism?
No, it isn’t. I mean, you can consult your own experts. It may be that not all agree with me, but I’ve talked to a number of respected eminent scholars who have said that this is not a venal mistake. It’s a venial mistake, which is unintended. So, I don’t know, I feel like I’ve answered all of these questions. So what else do you need from me?
Which experts did you consult?
I’m not gonna say. I’m not going to, you know, drag other people into this mess. No.
You say you didn’t intend to plagiarize. For those willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, one of the things that’s still unclear is exactly how it happened. Sloppiness is one thing, but a number of instances of sentences identical to another journalist’s writing appearing in your book seems to be another. How exactly did the nearly identical sentences make it into the book?
I think in a few cases — there are now six, I believe — a number from the New Yorker, an article that I do credit elsewhere in the footnotes, which I think underscores the unintentionality of all of this. I have gone back and looked and, I think, again, my error was in the process of going from first draft to typed manuscript to galley. Somehow I had numbered for myself words to footnote, and somehow in these instances — I mean, they’re mostly factual things. It’s not like they jump out at me like, “Wow, this isn’t mine.” I mistook it for mine.
So you had passages of factual text pulled from various sources in a research document, and while assembling the book you were thinking, “This is something that I wrote”?
I mean, I tried to be meticulous and careful, and obviously I failed in meeting that standard.
Right, but I’m trying to think through how exactly it happened. Did you have an assistant who was pulling these factual passages?
No, this was not an assistant’s mistake. I did have some assistance, but these are my mistakes.
So you would find, say, my article on Vice’s Jason Mojica, grab that chunk of text, and put it into a research document. Does that track with your process?
You know, I don’t know if that’s exactly right, but it’s something close. And I tried to be meticulous and careful. Some things, very few, slipped through.
Right, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around—
OK, I think that I have really explained it. Do you have other things? Because I have a three-hour class to teach at 3 o’clock.
What’s perhaps most troubling about the plagiarized portions of your book are the minor word changes— a person’s last name being changed to a pronoun, for instance — that seem to hint at something even more insidious than sloppy citation. Because it looks as though you, or someone who was working with you, purposefully changed just enough of these sentences in a determined attempt to avoid detection.
I believe it, again, is not with any kind of ill intent. But in taking notes quickly, I probably — I mean, changing a name to a pronoun would be, again, sloppy. It’s on me. I’ve said that again and again. And that is really all I’m gonna say. OK?
It’s still unclear how this happened, though. That’s one of the questions that’s still gonna be burning in me.
Well, I really do think I have explained it.
You told Vox: “Obviously, the language is too close in some cases, but I’m not lifting original ideas. Again, I wish I had got the citation right, but it’s not an intentional theft or taking someone’s original ideas — it’s just the facts.” As a fellow journalist, I was particularly upset by that because you were attempting to minimize the severity of your borrowing by minimizing the work that I and other journalists put into getting those facts.
I certainly didn’t intend to. I was stating the truth, which is that most of this material is factual. It wasn’t like I was saying it wasn’t important. I really do have to go now. I think we’re sort of going around and around.
Well, I do have a few other questions. Do you feel your credibility as a journalist has taken a hit because of the issues with your book?
That’s not for me to judge.
I ask because I know that if I did something similar to what you’ve done, I would certainly lose my ability to get work as a journalist. Are you at all worried about having the ability to work as a journalist?
No. I’m worried about correcting everything and making sure that, in the few clear cases where I didn’t credit a source in my footnotes, that those have been corrected. That’s all I can do. And that’s not for me to judge.
You have said that, amid the plagiarism hubbub surrounding Merchants of Truth, readers shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the book offers interesting insights about the transformation of the news business.
Have you read my book? I’m just curious.
No, I haven’t, actually.
Yeah, well, I wish you had. Or that you would.
You told Vox: “I really wanted [Merchants of Truth] to be about the importance of truth and facts. I don’t think these issues” — meaning the accusations of plagiarism — “should overshadow what I think is a really interesting book.” But as you well know, there is that implicit rule that any error calls into question the veracity of the entire project, whether it be an article or book.
I mean, these are all your judgements. And it’s absolutely your right to make them, but I’m not gonna comment on them. OK?
When you say you don’t want plagiarism to overshadow what you think is a really interesting book, I understand that. But in journalism, a single major error calls into question the trustworthiness of the whole of your work.
And that can be your opinion. I have no comment on that. It’s not for me to say.
But it is for you to say: You’re the author! And you’re also a highly respected journalist.
You, Jake, obviously have a formed opinion of that, and you’re entitled to it, and you can write it.
This isn’t the opinion that I wanted, though. I wanted to like your book.
Alright, well, you haven’t even read it. So, I hope you read it.
But do you understand why I wouldn’t read it? Because [the cited examples of plagiarism] call into question the entire project.
Yes, it is totally your right not to read it, Jake. I’m gonna go now. I respect you. I, again, am very sorry for not properly crediting your Time Out article, but I have to go now. So I’m going to say goodbye politely, OK?
This interview has been condensed for length.
Correction: This article previously stated that Abramson was on her way to her Spring 2019 workshop, “Journalism in the Age of Trump.” It has been corrected to clarify that she was on her way to an introduction to journalism class.