Plagiarism not governed by professional boundaries, says former Rocky Editor

( – promoted by Colorado Pols)

Should we hold public officials to the same standards as writers when it comes to plagiarism?

I emailed this question to Rocky Mountain News Editor John Temple, who’s now leading an online journalism experiment in Hawaii.

As a veteran editor, he’s obviously thought a lot about plagiarism. In what was, I believe, the last major instance of plagiarism in Denver, the Rocky’s Deputy Editorial Page Editor Thom Beal resigned in 2005 after it was revealed by 5280 Magazine that he lifted wording from a Washington Post article. Beal also copied a phrase from the Daily Howler. Temple wrote an item in the Rocky personally apologizing for “this breach of our trust with you, our readers.”

Temple emailed me:

“I don’t think plagiarism is governed by professional boundaries. We saw what happened when Joe Biden plagiarized Neil Kinnock. Nobody should take somebody else’s words and use them without crediting the original source.”

He’s right, and I don’t know who would disagree with him. It’s clear that plagiarism is wrong, regardless of who commits it.

But how big a deal should be made of it? The immediate fate of a writer who plagiarizes is clear, while the immediate ramifications for a public official or an aspiring one are not.

At least that’s what McInnis seems to be thinking.

See for more on this topic.

16 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Aristotle says:

    Since politicians are ultimately responsible to their constituents, it’s the reaction of the constituents that governs this question. Obviously that means that a fair amount of whim enters the equation.

    It boils down to the specifics in each case. The Biden plagiarism case was damaging in the short term – IIRC, Biden had to drop out of running for the nomination as the Dem candidate for POTUS, but it never led to either a resignation or a significant challenge to his reelection bids. I believe that’s because it was a small potatoes incident. He was making a speech, not writing papers on a fellowship for which he earned $300k and having someone else do all his work for him while a) not giving that person any credit or letting the Foundation know this was happening, and b) only kicking a few hundred dollars to that individual, shielding the purpose for the research, and then asking that person to take all the blame.

    With Scooter, it’s much more than the plagiarism itself. It’s the fellowship money, a huge sum which produced almost nothing and for which even that very little, others provided the material and work; it’s the misrepresentation he engaged in – to the Foundation, to Rolly Fischer, and to the public. And it’s the exact plagiarized passages themselves.

    While Biden was making a campaign speech. Further, he had used this phrasing several other times and remembered to cite Kinnock on those occasions. Clearly, it slipped Biden’s mind once. That really makes charges of plagiarism excessive. (What was a little more serious was that Biden had somewhat distorted his background by copying Kinnock’s words.)

    Scooter, in contrast, was passing himself off as an expert on water policy, being paid to write papers on it, and lifting passages from older papers to prove it. He did this in writing, and he did it despite the standards of plagiarism he must have learned in college and which he no doubt knew the Foundation would adhere to. That’s why they’re asking for him to refund the $300k.

    Basically, in answer to your question, the answer is, “It depends on the circumstances and whether they demonstrate that the politician is a fraud.” Biden’s essentially showed that he, at worst, did itt to make it seem like his family struggled more than they really did, in an effort to appeal to the average voter’s sympathies, while Scooter’s plagiarism directly enriched him and revealed that he’s capable of gross dishonesty. The court of public opinion thinks lowly of those kind of politicians.

  2. shrubHugger says:

    But am I the only one who thinks the Biden incident doesn’t compare? I guess I look at intention and reaction.

    Biden was a student paying for the privalge of a degree and a grade. He failed to cite a source. Admiited he was wrong. We all moved on. He took responsiblility for an error in judgement.

    McInnis is getting paid. 300k no less.. and he intentionally passed the work off as his own. Tried to blame his assitants. We all get pissed. He tries to shirk responsibility for fraud.  

    • shrubHugger says:

      i just got distracted gabbing with an intern. So don’t accuse me of plagurizing.  

    • faux_american says:

      What Scott McInniss was indefensible. However, I do think that the foundation shares some of the blame for not seeing catching this, or at least being concerned. The lack of citations should have been a major red flag that there was a problem.  

      • Aristotle says:

        which totaled a paltry 150 pages. They might simply have figured that they were getting shafted and decided not to bother with anything.

        Right now, I think the Foundation is clean. Questions remain regarding why they were paying for water policy papers from a guy with little experience in that field, but it’s not like they were publishing Scooter’s poor research, or rewarding it by extending his fellowship beyond its original term.

      • Aristotle says:

        which totaled a paltry 150 pages. They might simply have figured that they were getting shafted and decided not to bother with anything.

        Right now, I think the Foundation is clean. Questions remain regarding why they were paying for water policy papers from a guy with little experience in that field, but it’s not like they were publishing Scooter’s poor research, or rewarding it by extending his fellowship beyond its original term.

    • COSkier07 says:

      Scott is taking responsibility and at least attempting to move on?

      • shrubHugger says:

        Are you joking? He tries to sluff it off as sosmeone elses fault and then tries to get that person to sign a letter saying so, and then said person (Rolly Fischer) makes the statement that “Umm No he’s lying”

        He’s trying to move on for sure, but as for taking responsibilty? BWHAHAHAHAHAHA

  3. faux_american says:

    Plagiarism a major breach of ethics. If you want to serve in government, or in public service in general, you should be held to a higher standard ethics. Asking that candidates and those in office have the integrity to be honest about their writings is not an excessive standard.  

  4. BlueCat says:

    I can understand how this distinction diffuses the issue of plagiarism in op-eds.  You do those and give speeches for political reasons so having an undeclared ghostwriter or using somebody else’s anecdote may be misleading but you aren’t  getting paid for it so it’s not the same as stealing another person’s work for profit.  However the plagiarized writings that are the most important story for McInnis are those for which he was paid 300K, not political op-eds.  Shouldn’t professional standards apply?

    • faux_american says:

      If McInnis was a university student he would failed the course, and likely faced penalties, anything from a blackmark to getting kicked out.  If McInnis had been a professor, he most likely have been fired with a black mark on his record.

      To make a long story short, I don’t see a difference between payment vs. non-payment. Plagiarism is plagiarism  

      • EmeraldKnight76 says:

        You think some kid writing his paper who overlooks a citation and what McInnis did is the same thing? They are both technically plagiarism, but the intent drastically changes the situation.

  5. questionthespinners says:

    I had a conversation with a high school buddy via Facebook yesterday about this. We both grew up in northeast Colorado, and we both see things from a more rural perspective, yet we’re political opposites.

    While I, who has a degree in journalism, think this is a career-ending travesty, my buddy, who works in the oil & gas industry, thinks this is “a simple mistake.”

    He said he would still support and vote for McInnis because he has met the man and likes his political positions best among the current candidates.

    We went back and forth for a few hours on this, and while he understands why plagiarism is a big deal to me, he doesn’t see it that way. And I don’t see how a softer stand on O&G regulation overcomes lying.

    Point of this story — Not everybody who would normally support McInnis is as outraged about this as we may think.

    • shrubHugger says:

      But this is more than a mistake. It’s exacerbated by him trying to scape goat a collegue.

      But to me, the icing on the cake is you have someone who clearly put in ZERO amount of effort for 300k!!!

      He defrauded the Hassan foundation by implying that he would make considerable effort (in their minds as they have stated) to earn his fellowship and fee by doing more than just writing a paper.(ignoring the implications that Hassan foundation was buying their son political favor)

      If this is the kind of candidate that curries favor with the people then I would say you have people who are willing to put a man in office who will sit on his haunches and do NOTHING. Doing nothing and getting paid for it is corruption plain and simple. It’s not honest and it’s not hardworking.. Um isn’t that the whole point of this “anit-incumbant” movement that the R’s are emphatic about??!! getting rid of the lazy-know-nothings who sit back and collect paychecks?

      The people who support McInnis need to sit back and reflect on what “republican” values they really support, because last I heard, republicans are all about people who earn what they get and don’t just sit on their lazy asses and get paid for it.

      Supoot McInnis and you support Politcal Welfare

      • questionthespinners says:

        Don’t get me wrong shrubHugger. I’m with you on everything you said, and you made a couple points I hadn’t with my friend, so I’ll bring these back up with him, for sure.

        I was just trying to point out that there are McInnis supporters out there who don’t seem to care about all of this. Kind of a “I know what I know! Don’t show me the facts!” stance.

        Thanks for the ideas for me to try to convince him otherwise, though.

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