Precocious Little Liars

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Precocious Little Liars

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Writing, whether journalism or literature, was once an honorable art, in which the writer took pride in his or her unique view of the world. Writers were prized for their intellect, for their ability to produce prose that moved or enlightened.

But now, in the age of the Internet, when computers make everyone's words accessible to everyone else at the touch of a keyboard, the writer's art has been debased by the corrupt and the lazy. By the plagiarists.

They existed in the past, but this is different. Almost every month we hear of some so-called author or journalist who decided to get ahead by copping out.

Even well-known, respected historians like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin were found to have plagiarized other historians' work.

There was James Frey, whose supposedly nonfiction memoir A Million Little Pieces turned out to be, as The Smoking Gun Web site put it, a million little lies.

Jayson Blair, a New York Times reporter, was found in 2003 to have faked quotes, made up interviews, stolen passages from other newspapers and repeatedly lied to his editors about what he was up to. The scandal brought down the newspaper's two top editors. The smirking Blair blamed the competitive culture in the newsroom.

Two years ago, at USA Today, foreign correspondent Jack Kelley was found to have invented large portions of some of his most notorious stories, full of heroism and adventure. He should have written romance novels.

A couple of months ago, at the Washington Post, a young blogger named Ben Domenech was kicked off the paper's Web site after fellow bloggers revealed that in previous work he had copied passages from other publications.

Long before the Internet, The Post had to contend with the case of Janet Cooke, a reporter who in 1980 told the harrowing tale of Jimmy, an eight year-old who was a third-generation heroin addict, "a precocious little boy," she wrote, "with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms."

Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her story about Jimmy.

Except that she made him up.

When the deception was discovered, Cooke was shown the door, and The Post's editors, deeply embarrassed, returned the prize.

We had a case of plagiarism here at the Baltimore Sun, in January, when veteran columnist Michael Olesker was found to have lifted other writers' words in some of his columns. His 40-year career was ruined.

Now we have the case of a Harvard sophomore who got a half-million-dollar advance for a pair of chick-lit novels. The problem is that Kaavya Viswanathan's first book, already on the stands, is getting less and less original the more people look at it. The book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, was pulled from stores last week after it became clear that Viswanathan had copied more than 40 ideas, passages and blocks of language from two novels by Megan McCafferty.

Viswanathan has acknowledged plagiarizing from McCafferty, but insists that it was "unconscious and unintentional."

But this morning, the New York Times reported that other parts of Viswanathan's book appear to have been copied from yet another author, Sophie Kinsella, whose book was titled Can You Keep a Secret?

In Sunday's Times, Tom Zeller Jr. wrote that, whatever Viswanathan's culpability, "one might hope the episode would be the final object lesson for would-be plagiarists who still think that their indiscretions can escape scrutiny."

In the age of the Internet, he wrote, "one misstep, one mistake, can incite a horde of analysts, each with a global publishing medium in the living room and, it sometimes seems, limitless amounts of time."

In other words, don't try it.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan