For the past several years I’ve been teaching various journalism courses at Rowan University. One of them is called Media Ethics. In addition to touching on a whole host of interesting matters pertaining to, well, ethics and the media (and getting to dig into the likes of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant) we also spend several weeks looking into some of the most infamous plagiarists and fabulists in modern journalism. We watch the film Shattered Glass (and read the namesake Vanity Fair article that inspired it), marveling at the brazen and perplexing neuroses of Stephen Glass. We read through old articles written by Jayson Blair and shake our heads at the tragedy of a young man who traded laziness for opportunity and potential. And we critique the actions of Janet Cooke, a former Washington Post star reporter who won the Pulitzer for an article that was—for the most part—an elaborate fabrication. It’s always one of the most interesting and engaging units of the semester, and at the end of it I always ask my students two overarching questions: Why did they do it? and Will it happen again?
As one would assume, answers to the first question are varied and nuanced. My students point to factors that run the gamut from laziness to a veritable addiction to the rush one might get from creating such elaborate fictions and passing them off as fact. And always their critiques are delivered with past-tense derision, which inevitably steers the discussion toward question number two: Will it happen again?
With the exception of one or two outliers, the resounding response to this question is no. How could it, they seem to say. We now know the tricks these journalists used in the past, and anyone would be downright foolish to step into the waters of plagiarism and expect to come out unscathed in this day and age. I mean, if Google were around in the age of Glass or Cooke they would have been outed almost immediately. Right?
Fair enough. But after prodding my students a little further they eventually agree that, sure, maybe in some far distant future—once the likes of Glass and Blair and Cooke are long forgotten—just maybe someone will try this again.
And yet last year I returned to Rowan’s campus in the fall with a newly minted plagiarist on the syllabus. Jonah Lehrer, a science writer I had come to admire from both his work in Wired magazine and his regular appearances on WNYC’s RadioLab, was outed in 2012 as a serial plagiarist who had committed a whole host of ethical sins (detailed here in a comprehensive article from Slate.com). I have to admit, I was shocked to read about what Lehrer had done—not only because I respected his work but also because I think I naively harbored the same assumptions as my students. Sure, another plagiaristic journalist would eventually crop up…but only in the distant future. Right?
Wrong. Because here we go again.
Woefully, I must say I wasn’t all that shocked to find out just a few days ago that we have yet another plagiarist in our midst. According to a June 12, 2014 feature from the New Republic (how fitting), celebrated journalist and best-selling author Chris Hedges has been plagiarizing large chunks of his work for many years now. Everything came to a head when fact checkers at Harper’s began digging into a feature Hedges wrote for the magazine in 2010 about Camden, New Jersey. And what they found was most disturbing indeed. Here’s a passage from the New Republic feature:
The trouble began when [editor at Harper’s, Theodore] Ross passed the piece along to the fact-checker assigned to the story. As Ross and the fact-checker began working through the material, they discovered that sections of Hedges’s draft appeared to have been lifted directly from the work of a PhiladelphiaInquirer reporter named Matt Katz, who in 2009 had published a four-part series on social and political dysfunction in Camden.
Given Hedges’s institutional pedigree, this discovery shocked the editors at Harper’s. Hedges had been a star foreign correspondent at the Times, where he reported from war zones and was part of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for covering global terrorism. In 2002, he had received the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He is a fellow at the Nation Institute. He has taught at Princeton University and Columbia University. He writes a weekly column published in the widely read progressive website Truthdig and frequently republished on the Truthout website. He is the author of twelve books, including the best-selling American Fascists. Since leaving the Times in 2005, he has evolved into a polemicist of the American left. For his fierce denunciations of the corporate state, his attacks on the political elite, and his enthusiasm for grassroots revolt, he has secured a place as a firebrand revered among progressive readers.
A leading moralist of the left, however, had now been caught plagiarizing at one of the oldest magazines of the left.
For a detailed description of Hedges’s transgressions (and there are many) I suggest you read the full New Republic story. In the end it appears that Hedges—whose journalistic pedigree had once been unassailable (he taught at fucking Princeton and Columbia)—was duping editors and publishers for quite some time. What’s more, he has yet to own up to his ethically nefarious deeds and, in keeping in line with all of the aforementioned journalists of his ilk, is trying to justify and rationalize what he’s done.
Once again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But part of me can’t help but hang my head in perplexed disenchantment, asking myself the same questions I ask my students: Why the hell would someone like Hedges decide to do this? And how did he go so long without being caught?
To be sure, a lot of ink will be spilled on this topic in the coming months. And some small part of me wants to say that, Okay, this is the last time we’ll see the likes of Hedges for a very long time. But at the risk of sounding cynical, I don’t think that’s the case. In every profession—whether it’s journalism, medicine, law, or roofing—corruption and unethical behavior will inevitably rear its head over and over again. But why? What drives these writers to take the lazy road, and to have the audacity to think they won’t be discovered? Perhaps we can learn something from the case of Chris Hedges…but what lessons have we not already been taught? And what do we still have yet to learn?