Embellishment, Fabrication, and Plagiarism

cover of ImagineJonah Lehrer is the latest* in a long line of writers caught up in the scandal of fabricating facts in order to construct a good narrative for his book. Recently a writer at the Jewish magazine The Tablet was fact-checking the Bob Dylan quotations in Lehrer’s book Imagine, and discovered that a good number of the quotes are misstatements, cobbled-together phrases from disparate interviews, or, some of them, fabricated entirely in order to sell Lehrer’s thesis. In a bit of poetic irony, the focus of the book was on how creativity works.

Prior to the reveal that he fabricated these Dylan quotes, the celebrity slam site Gawker had been criticizing Lehrer for rehashing a lot of his older articles, mining them for material for his new job blogging at the New Yorker. (Is self-plagiarism even a thing?**) Lehrer has since resigned his role at the New Yorker.

While sad, this kind of story is nothing new. Every year a new scandal comes out where people have been caught in the act of embellishing upon the truth, constructing facts to suit their narrative, and flat-out stealing the words from other people’s mouths. Earlier this year it was Mike Daisey.


Daisey had been doing a very successful one-man show called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which explores the working conditions at Apple’s factories in Shenzhen, China; a portion of that show was picked up by NPR’s This American Life as “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.” That segment became the most played story the show that had ever aired, and ultimately Apple began investigating and working to fix the conditions of the workers at their factories. But with this success came scrutiny, and it started coming out that pieces of Daisey's story were not lining up.

Journalists at NPR’s Marketplace, who were very familiar with the Chinese factory conditions started fact-checking, because elements from the story just didn’t jive with their recollections of those very same places. Ultimately it came out that Daisey had cobbled together elements from other journalist’s experiences, sensationalized the few elements he did experience first-hand, and basically said that he did so because it made for a better narrative. This American Life was mortified; they pulled the piece, issued a retraction, and had an entire show dedicated to exposing the truth behind the story. The whole affair made show host Ira Glass and NPR examine the delicate line they walk between storytelling and journalism.

Amazingly the scandal has done little to stop Mike Daisey’s career, in fact, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is currently being performed by Mike Daisey right now at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in D.C. Funnily enough, Mike Daisey also did a one-man show entitled Truth {The heart is a million little pieces above all things} about how Author James Frey embellished his novel A Million Little Pieces, and got caught very, very publicly. 

Cover of A Million Little PiecesA Million Little Pieces was billed as James Frey’s memoir of his life as a drug addict and criminal. Pieces recounts some incredibly gruesome details surrounding his experiences on drugs, in detox, and the horror stories about being repeatedly busted by the police and spending hard time in prison. The book came out to mixed reactions when it was released in 2003, particularly among people who had a critical background in substance abuse and crime. But it was once the book was picked by Oprah’s Book Club in September 2005 that everything started to unravel.

Frey’s first appearance on Oprah in October got people questioning the factual nature of this book that was billed as a truthful memoir of a very rough life. When the folks who run the tell-all website The Smoking Gun went digging for evidence of James Frey’s criminal background, they found was that Frey’s life was not as hardcore as he stated, and that, in fact, he had hardly ever been in jail at all.

TSG spent six weeks pouring into the details, and found that while he may have been arrested a couple of times, his offenses were petty misdemeanors with local cops, and his hardened life behind bars was anything but hard, nor was it barely any time at all. They even turned up the fact that he had recounted a story of a horrible train accident that took the life of two high school girls he knew, and inserted himself into the narrative surrounding their death.

After The Smoking Gun story came out on Jan. 8, 2006, Oprah got Frey and his editor back into the studios. On Jan. 26, 2006, she very publicly called him out on every detail that was embellished in that book. Frey admitted on national television that he made things up. Amazingly, sales of the book barely slowed down, and it was still on the bestseller lists nine months later. 

cover of Killing LincolnBut James Frey is old news. Let’s talk about Bill O’Reilly. In November 2011, the National Park Service, who oversee the Ford’s Theatre historical site reviewed Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book Killing Lincoln. The Ford’s Theatre is the site of Lincoln’s assassination and the NPS contracts with a book shop full of Lincoln memorabilia and literature there. The Park Service, wanting to maintain the integrity of the historic site, reviews all of the products for their accuracy before they are added to the shop.

O’Reilly’s book was determined to be too factually inaccurate and lacking in documentation to be worthy of being sold at the Theatre. Reviewer Rae Emerson provides chapter and page quotations from Killing Lincoln, contradicted by factual references from numerous other sources to support the verdict. Among the embellishments are such glaring errors as Lincoln meeting in the Oval Office, which didn’t exist until forty years later during the William Howard Taft administration. While it could be argued that factual inaccuracy, or embellishment make for colorful storytelling, the fact that O’Reilly is a journalist makes the errors all the more glaring.

cover of The Fitzgeralds and the KennedysIf journalists get knocked for not fact checking, a historian’s reputation can be ruined if they slip up, especially if the error involves more than just not reporting facts accurately, but plagiarizing the work of other historians. Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of several presidential biographies and a regular commentator on PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, was caught up in a plagiarism scandal in 2002.

The Weekly Standard ran an article that laid out how Goodwin had lifted entire phrases, sometimes paragraphs from three earlier works when composing her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. The quotations were not cited or even listed as quotes in the book. Goodwin attributed the error to writing out her notes for her books in longhand on legal pads at the time. She issued a public correction of her work and disclosed the settlement she reached with author Lynne McTaggart, who wrote the book Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, a source for some of Goodwin’s quotes.

But the gaffe cost her credibility, and for several years she took a leave of absence from her role as a PBS expert historian.

cover of Decision PointsBut what if it’s not a historian or a journalist, but actually a historymaker who plagiarizes? What if it’s a former President?

Former President George W. Bush was caught plagiarizing in his book Decision Points. Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post detailed a handful of instances where the former President, and most likely his assistant Peter Rough, lifted passages from other books and publicly accessible news articles about events that took place during the Bush presidency.

The strangest thing is that many of the anecdotes refer to events where Bush was not even present, like the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That story was taken word-for-word from Ahmed Rashid’s article in the New York Review of Books. But that’s just the beginning of a litany of stories lifted in their entirety from other writers, not the least of which was journalist Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War, and General Tommy Franks’ memoir American Soldier. Looking for unattributed quotations in Decision Points became something of a game, and ultimately a joke.

But plagiarism doesn’t always devastate a writer’s career or make them a laughingstock. In 2010, 17-year-old wunderkind Helene Hegemann was called out regarding her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill for taking as much as up to an entire page from an earlier book entitled Strobo. Nevertheless, Hegemann was nominated for a prestigious award for new German authors, and the prize committee was fully aware of the plagiarism. Rather, the author defended her use of previous works as being a product of her generation’s exposure to mashups and remixes. In fact, the committee viewed this as a central conceit of the novel.

And it’s true that, to some extent, society’s attitudes toward copyright are changing. The ability to rapidly copy files makes plagiarizing (or remixing) incredibly easy. You don’t even need to type the words yourself -- just highlight, copy and paste directly into your document. This ease of use has removed a lot of the burden of plagiarizing. Where Goodwin copied from book to notepad to typewriter, and lost source information in the process, today a writer need only copy and write an entire book never knowing or caring the source of the material. Then again, just as easily that same author can copy and paste the URL of his source directly into his document -- just as I have done throughout the process of writing this article.

I’ll leave you with this wonderful little Op-Doc from the New York Times, entitled “Allergy to Originality,” where two characters debate whether or not anything could be considered original anyway.

--Eric Riley
 
* Since this post was first written, it has come out that Fareed Zakaria had plagiarized text for his blog.  So Jonah Lehrer is no longer the latest.
** This post was, for the most part, previously written and posted on the author's personal blog, before posting it here.  So, let's not make any judgments about that.  ;)