Sins of Omission

by matttbastard

Mark C. of Daimnation! gleefully points to this story, published in today’s print edition of the Globe and Mail, which details the plagiarism charges being levelled at Canadian journalist and best-selling author Paul William Roberts. Roberts admitted to mistakenly inserting numerous passages from a well-known 2002 Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed piece into his 2004 book A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq, without properly attributing the original source. As a result, Roberts’ Canadian publisher, Raincoast Books, has halted shipment of the book’s paperback edition:

In a Jan. 19 letter of apology to a lawyer for the newspaper, Mr. Roberts called his failure to acknowledge the use of [Jay] Bookman’s material in five of his book’s 350-plus pages “a journalistic travesty” and “an egregious lapse of professional conduct,” but he said the failure was inadvertent, more the result of “the dangers of sloppiness” than an act of malice or bald plagiarism.

A close friend of Roberts who agreed to speak with me on the grounds that he remain anonymous backs up Roberts, explaining that the besieged journalist “is not malicious, but he is sloppy”. The source goes on to say that “[Roberts] is so outspoken, that the [right] targets him.”

Whether motivated by partisan vendetta or not, this isn’t the first instance Roberts has found himself facing charges of plagiarism. A 2006 Globe feature by Roberts (unfortunately now behind the pay wall) contained passages that closely resembled a New Republic article (also subscriber-only) from earlier that year. After an internal investigation, the Globe issued this ‘clarification’ (via Regret the Error):

A profile of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that appeared in last Saturday’s Focus section referred to a story about the Iranian President in the current issue of The New Republic. After an investigation by The Globe and Mail, it appears that notes by the author were mistakenly inserted into the story without proper attribution. The Globe has apologized to The New Republic and regrets the error.

But conservative blogger Robert Aterman found the Globe’s ‘clarification’ (eerily similar to Roberts’ latest mea culpa) inadequate:

The PWR article is around 2,000 words. Of that about a third is given over to Ahmadinejad’s biography. Almost all of this section is a lightly paraphrased (and in parts exactly identical) version of the original article by [Matthias] Küntzel. This represents pretty much the entire informative content of the article; the rest is Roberts’ opinioneering. It is hard to see how this can be described as “notes by the author.” Nor is it believable that this was “mistakenly inserted.” This isn’t a line or a paragraph, but over 700 words, absent which the article would include essentially no factual content.

Like my anonymous source, I don’t want to believe that Paul William Roberts deliberately appropriates other people’s work without citing the source material. It is, however, hard to give someone who has repeatedly shown such lax journalistic standards the benefit of the doubt. I may respect and admire Roberts for his willingness to speak truth to power, but I cannot condone plagiarism, intentional or otherwise.

Roberts may or may not survive this latest controversy with his reputation intact. However, I know I’ll find it hard to read something by him without second guessing the originality of the work, much like that of disgraced historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Malice or incompetence aside, Roberts must take responsibility for the inevitable erosion in confidence his actions have engendered.