An Unexpected Fight for Facts
Illustration: Celina Gallardo

Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, has been accused of plagiarism with the release of her new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts. Released this month by Simon & Schuster, Abramson’s book is a comparative analysis of major legacy publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, and newer outlets like BuzzFeed and Vice.

One of the passages in question involves a 2005 article by Nicolle Weeks in the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Weeks is now a digital publisher with Rogers Media.

Intended to explore the uncertain future of the journalism industry, Merchants of Truth “raises crucial questions that concern the well-being of our society,” especially needed, according to Simon & Schuster, at a time in which a crisis in trust threatens the free press.

But on February 6, Vice News correspondent Michael C. Moynihan posted a Twitter thread that questioned Abramson’s use of source materials. The Vice journalist accused the former NYT editor of plagiarising from multiple sources, listing excerpts from five that are almost identical to passages in Abramson’s book. Abramson has denied any plagiarism in her book. In his initial tweet, Moynihan said he began to suspect something was wrong with Abramson’s book after noticing several “egregious errors” concerning his Vice colleague, Arielle Duhaime-Ross—one of which Abramson later corrected.

Moynihan then went on to say that aside from the three chapters on Vice being “clotted with mistakes,” he also found various “plagiarized passages.”

The first passage Moynihan points to is from a 2005 RRJ article, “Bigot or Champion of Truth?”  by Weeks, a former online editor.

The article, a profile of Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, explores Vice’s often controversial accounts of counterculture.

Moynihan’s tweet shows a side-by-side comparison of a passage from Weeks’s article with an excerpt on page 50 of Abramson’s book. The passage from the RRJ piece refers to a 2003 column written by McInnes for The American Conservative, in which McInnes “called young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his cronies use often) who’ll believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with light skin.”

Waking up to the news all over Twitter the morning after Moynihan’s tweet, “I was pretty perplexed, to be honest,” Weeks says, “that Jill Abramson would plagiarize my writing from over ten years ago, when she could have just written it herself and acknowledged that she had gotten the writing from the Ryerson Review of Journalism.”

On Wednesday, Mathew Ingram, chief digital writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, received several direct messages on Twitter one after another. He opened the messages to find Moynihan’s twitter thread, which also claimed Ingram had been plagiarized. The excerpt in question from Ingram is from a blog post he wrote for the CJR, “New data casts doubt on Facebook’s commitment to quality news.”

“I was [also] shocked by his entire thread about the other references,” Ingram says. “I don’t feel like something has been stolen from me, something valuable. That said, it’s still technically plagiarism.”

Ingram says the issue is more about journalistic principles and ethics than legality.  

“Plagiarism is sort of a standard of behaviour that journalists and academics kind of agree to, a sort of code of conduct in a way. I certainly feel like these examples breach that. [But] I don’t know that they reached a level where you could make a legal case,” he explains.

Other well-known journalists have been at the centre of plagiarism accusations. In 2012, CNN and Time magazine suspended journalist Fareed Zakaria after he was accused of copying passages from historian Jill Lepore in the article, “The Case for Gun Control.” In a statement to The Atlantic Wire at the time of the accusations, Zakaria apologized “unreservedly” to Lepore. In 2014, Zakaria was accused again of plagiarising by a series of anonymous watchdogs, who cited 12 instances in which, they say, the foreign policy journalist lifted passages from other authors. In a letter to Politico, Zakaria dismissed these allegations. In the same year, Buzzfeed writer Benny Johnson was fired after he was found to have “plagiarized the work of others 40 times in some 500 articles and posts.” In 2016, The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente was accused of plagiarism in four of her columns. In response, the Globe’s Public Editor Sylvia Stead issued an online statement: “Ms. Wente said she deeply regrets these mistakes.” These accusations came four years after Wente faced other allegations of plagiarism in 2012. In a follow-up column, Wente addressed these allegations directly, writing: “I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I am not a serial plagiarist.”  

Zakaria and Wente still write for these publications.

“Plagiarism is a funny thing,” Ingram says, adding that while you can get fired, there are often no other repercussions. “Plagiarism seems to fall into this grey area where it’s not like you committed a crime, it’s just that you were maybe rude or lazy or sloppy.”

In an email to the RRJ, Simon & Schuster’s publicist, Cary Goldstein, writes:

“Jill Abramson’s MERCHANTS OF TRUTH is an important, exhaustively researched and meticulously sourced book about the media business in a critical moment of transition. It has been published with an extraordinary degree of transparency toward its subjects; each of the four news organizations covered in the book was given ample time and opportunity to comment on the content, and where appropriate the author made changes and corrections. If upon further examination changes or attributions are deemed necessary we stand ready to work with the author in making those revisions.”

On Wednesday in an interview with Martha MacCallum for her Fox News show, The Story with Martha MacCallum, Abramson initially denied the allegations.  Later that day in a series of tweets, Abramson said that the criticism from Vice News was a reaction to her book’s portrayal of the news organization: “The attacks on my book from some @vicenews reflect their unhappiness with what I consider a balanced portrayal.”

Abramson has not responded to the RRJ’s request for an interview, but on February 7 she released a statement via her Twitter account, saying: “…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 quotation in the text. This, too, will be fixed,” she wrote. “…The book is over 500 pages. All of the ideas in the book are original, all the opinions are mine. The passages in question involve facts that should have been perfectly cited in my footnotes and weren’t.”

Upon our own review, the Ryerson Review of Journalism is not cited in either the book’s footnotes or its end notes.

“If you’re a well-known journalist and you’re plagiarizing—you should probably be out of the job,” Weeks says.

Weeks is hopeful for a satisfactory conclusion. “I don’t know what will happen, but hopefully I’m acknowledged in her book as a source,” she says. Failing that, Weeks suggests:

“She should take that passage out of her book.”


Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jill Abramson corrected multiple mistakes regarding Arielle Duhaime-Ross. Abramson only corrected one. The Review regrets this error.

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