(Originally published July 12, 2012, in Dilema Veche, here.)
Here’s a disturbing thought:
Romania’s Prime Minister is accused of having committed an egregious and truly indefensible act of plagiarism. Given its scope, it’s not just an oversight that happened by accident. It was a willful and wanton disregard of intellectual honesty. It stemmed, as any intentional act of plagiarism does, from a distorted sense of entitlement, a shrug of intellectual laziness, a tendency for premeditated mendacity, a dangerous deficiency of ethics, or just pure and simple ignorance. Whichever you choose, it is not an attribute I want in a Prime Minister.
Yet that’s not what bothers me the most.
What happened next? The press, thanking the lord for a real scandal this time, scrambles, salivating, and tripping over themselves to discuss this from all angles. TV channels throw out the net and bring in all sorts of guests. Newspapers run breathless headlines and detailed stories. Websites and blogs give opinions, perspectives, criticisms and defenses. This is terrible, they agree.
But what I want to know is – how many in the press, how many reporters, later that day, perhaps the next day, went back to the office, had stories to write, searched the internet and found quotes, phrases, facts, entire paragraphs from other websites and then used them with no attribution?
Yes, now that the press finally got righteous about this topic, now that it has “found religion” as the expression goes, now might be a good time for it to start telling us where it gets its information, its stories about foreign leaders, its quotes from distant lands, its video of floods in Timbuktu, its worthless clips of dancing cats wearing dresses. Because not sourcing is plagiarism. That’s what we’re talking about here: using someone else’s work and presenting intentionally, or even through omission, as if it was ours.
(For those of you who still don’t understand, which seems to be many of you, see if this helps: if you stole the cake from down the street, don’t pretend you made it when you want to impress others or when you try to sell it. Not only is it theft, but it’s also lying. Either one should get you fired. It’s simple.)
Yes, if political leaders reflect the times in which we live, then Victor Ponta might be a poster child of a substantive and disturbing reality here in Romania – and one that I have seen with truly alarming frequency. Unlike any other place I’ve lived or worked, too many people here just don’t seem to understand that there is something wrong with stealing someone else’s words. I’m not talking about imitating concepts. I’m not talking about importing ideas and creating something new. I’m talking about directly lifting content (in other words, stealing someone’s property) and presenting it as their own.
When I worked at a TV station here, the “newsroom” freely used the internet for information, news, quotes, whatever. Why pay for foreign news services when so much out there is free (and perhaps true)? When I watch the TV news, I see video from all over – hail somewhere I’ve never heard of, singing dogs in the US, Hillary Clinton in Mexico City. I have no idea where they got it, but really, why complain? When I read the local newspaper, from where does this reporter in Bucharest obtain her quotes from politicians in Greece? Mental telepathy? When I look at the cover of Adevarul and Romania libera and they are running the same photo of Adrian Nastase on the very same day and neither one tells me where they got it, why does that seem strange? I’ve seen a local magazine here pick up entire passages from a similar article published elsewhere. What harm does that do? When I was director of marketing and the advertising agencies came in with ideas that were directly stolen (sorry, borrowed) – verbatim – from TV commercials I remember in the US, why get offended? (Speaking of which, check out the terrific monster.com Super Bowl ad from 1999. [See it here.] I meant to thank them for reminding me how good it was.) When a student of mine turns in a paper that was, in its entirety, lifted from corporate documents written by somebody else, why should I fail her? She assured me she wrote it, meaning she was the one who selected the appropriate passages to steal. What’s wrong with that?
Seriously, think about it. In all these cases, the reasoning apparently goes, the other academic or reporter or photographer or creative team is done with whatever they produced.. They don’t need it anymore. Why shouldn’t we use it? Who cares if we “wrote” it? Why shouldn’t we sell it like we owned it – if we can get away with it?
Nevermind that in all these cases, it is stealing someone else’s property and presenting it as our own. It is usurping the intellectual capital of someone else and falsely attributing it to ourself. It is, in other words, avoiding the effort of thought by picking up someone else’s thinking and wearing their thoughts as a mask to one’s own laziness and emptiness. People need to understand that legitimate writing is not the literary equivalent of a Barladeanu collage.
So to Mr. Ponta, I ask: In the 432 pages, how many ideas were actually yours? What thoughts that we read were original to you? But why stop there? Now that you are Prime Minister, are you still pretending to think and are you still using others’ ideas as if they were yours? Are you still allowing others to write and create the ideas and set the agenda? Or now is it you? And how will we know? Because those are the questions that arise when you practice pretending to think thoughts that aren’t yours.
And perhaps saddest of all, I’m not sure even the press understands. They seem so out of touch, even they can’t get it right. Just the other day, Realitatea here credited a story to some obscure website that posts unsourced stories run by some guy based in Tbilisi. Some days later, it sourced a graphic to itself (in other words: “according to me.”) Even worse, when the Associated Press wrote a story about the latest scandal here, then sends it to The New York Times, which publishes it with proper attribution to the AP, it’s then quoted in Romania crediting The New York Times. Yes, indeed, how much more worrisome can this get? These days, for all we know, we are reading news here in a newspaper that got its information from TV which got its from a website where they read posts from a blogger who yesterday read a newspaper that was written by a reporter who was watching TV which got its news from Tbilisi.
Now, not everyone does it. I’ve seen some fine examples of reporters here sourcing correctly and appropriately inside their stories and my hat goes off to them. But in the very same publication on the very same day, you will find other articles that break all rules of ethics (and perhaps law) by stealing the work of others.
Please, plagiarism is not a personal lifestyle decision left up to individual reporters. It speaks to the very integrity of a free press where fairness and accuracy and transparency are the hallmark of its existence.
The fact is sometimes I wonder if the entire culture here is being borrowed. Borrowed without comprehension. Borrowed without knowing why. Borrowed without attribution. And worst of all: without understanding what’s wrong with not understanding.
And that, finally, is the real danger. Because whether you’re Victor Ponta, Pal Schmitt, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, Joe Biden, Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Bucharest reporter, or a business school student, when you steal a cake, or you use someone else’s thoughts, how will anyone know if you know how to bake, or if you know how to think – or even if you understand what you’re doing.
Because in the end, the ethics of one Prime Minister is not that important. The ethics of the press, however, is of foundational importance in a strong and vibrant democracy.
Nature magazine and the Associated Press contributed to this article.