When I was in college, I served for a couple of years on the Cheating and Plagiarism panel. It was a group of students, faculty, and administrators who acted as judge and jury for formal charges of plagiarism. I sat in judgment on quite a few of my peers, and in the process learned just how serious it is, to represent someone else’s words, someone else’s ideas, as one’s own. And in those many cases, there was only one case where I regretted my vote.
I was the swing vote in the case of a young lady who had stolen her roommate’s paper and submitted it as her own. I had to choose between an F in the course, and a one-term suspension. I voted for the failure, but I always wondered if the suspension would have been better for her. She had been overwhelmed by the pressure and panicked, and perhaps that suspension would have given her a break to get her head together. In that case, I was not thinking of punitive measures, but simply the best way to help her regain her balance and succeed.
So it is with that background that I find myself looking at the Katie Couric “notebook” scandal, and find myself wondering if CBS has, in its efforts to dig itself free of yet another scandal by their lead anchor, simply dug itself in deeper.
To recap: Katie Couric regularly broadcasts her “notebook” — essays and commentaries on various and sundry issues. One of her most recent ones was lifted largely from a colum in the Wall Street Journal. CBS has said that the producer who wrote the piece has been fired — but won’t name him or her.
CBS seems to hope that by tossing this anonymous producer under the wheels, the scandal will go away. But the real scandal here is not that the column was plagiarized, but that Katie Couric didn’t do it.
According to CBS’ official story, Katie Couric routinely passes off others’ work as her own. This exposure of her second-hand plagiarism has revealed her regular commitment of first-hand plagiarism.
On CBS’ website, Katie Couric posts her stuff under the title of “Katie Couric’s Notebook,” under her name, and concluding with “that’s a page from my Notebook.” It’s written in the first person, and there is not the slightest indication that the words are not actually written by Couric.
So, let’s hear the excuses. I’ll start it off.
“No one expects that Couric actually writes everything she says.” True enough. But here, it’s being presented as her own work, an expression of her thoughts and feelings. And if we can’t trust her to get her own words and feelings honestly, how the hell can we trust her on anything else?
“Ghost writing is a long and established tradition.” It’s still a lie, and still raises a stink when it is revealed.
I own every word I’ve ever written here. (Well, not in a legal, copyright sense, but in every other way that counts.) I’ve never taken anyone else’s words or ideas and presented them as my own. I’ve come darn close on occasion, by accident, and apologized for them — it’s a danger for any blogger who reads others for source material. Sometimes notions, phrases, or observations stick in the back of one’s mind, resurfacing without the proper associations and attributions. But I’ve never once taken a whole article from someone else and presented it as my own without giving proper credit.
So, will CBS rename the project to “Katie Couric’s Staff’s Notebook, as approved by and presented by Katie Couric?” I think not. They’ve paid too much for their talking head, and to reveal the unhappy truth that that head is hollow but for a speaker that blats out whatever she’s told to regurgitate would be to admit their mistake.
But they should.