Government & Politics
 

Jim Brown makes interesting points; some are even his own

Former Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown hosts a radio talk show on a nationwide network of affiliates. He’s also one of the most widely reprinted political commentators in the Louisiana blogosphere. From the Daily Kingfish to the Louisiana Conservative, from Bayou Buzz to various other outlets around the state, Jim Brown’s columns have received significant exposure throughout the interwebs of our region.

His site boasts that his “syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South.”
Unfortunately for those outlets, Jim Brown has repeatedly lifted text from other sources and inserted it into his syndicated commentaries without citation. That’s plagiarism.

I first got a whiff of it three years ago, when fellow blogger Greg Peters noted that one of Brown’s columns borrowed “great unattributed swaths” of text from another source. At the time, I discounted the error as an example of shoddy scholarship, or a lack of familiarity with the pull-quote method of Internet commentary, in which quoted text is clearly marked or set off in a different format. But Brown was on my radar after that. And, over the years, whenever I’d notice a change in narrative “voice,” I’d Google suspicious sentences from Brown’s commentaries and find that they echoed someone else’s work. These weren’t accidents or mere coincidences, either. Brown’s columns were always published subsequent to the strikingly similar texts. It was clear to me that Brown was repeatedly and intentionally borrowing directly from other sources.

Frankly,  I grew tired of seeing some of my favorite  sites re-publish Brown’s lifted work. I pointed this out  in the comments at these  sites, linking to the  the lifted work, but was told to post my grievances elsewhere.

I can do that. And I’m not above admitting that this was motivated in part by good old-fashioned writer’s block. The words were not flowing at all, and then I recalled Brown’s tendency to lift text, and it inspired me to expose him.

Below is a sampling of texts that I believe were inappropriately lifted by Brown. By no means do I consider it an exhaustive list.

In his opinion column from Feb. 4, 2010 on the “Oregon approach,” you’ll see that Brown directly lifts from an op-ed by Dave Treibel at OregonLive.com published on Feb. 1, 2010. (Note that the last sentence in Treibel’s excerpt forms the crux of the first sentence in the Brown excerpt.)

Brown:

The attitude seems to be that politics is permanently entrenched in the toxicity of divisive partisanship, but bright ideas always trump cynicism. The new sleek iPad tablet is loaded with impressive, sophisticated technology that Apple’s engineers have worked on for years. It’s the kind of “thinking ahead” philosophy and culture that Steve Jobs and Apple nurture and are known for. The Oregon approach seems to be what an interesting challenge it would be if they could corral an equivalent level of ingenuity and talent available to Steve Jobs to solve some of the complex issues facing their state.

Treibel:

The new sleek tablet is loaded with impressive, sophisticated technology that Apple’s engineers have worked on for years. It’s the kind of “thinking ahead” philosophy and culture that Steve Jobs and Apple nurture and are known for. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if Obama could corral an equivalent level of ingenuity and talent available to Steve Jobs to solve some of the complex issues facing our country?”

American politics seem permanently entrenched in the toxicity of divisive partisanship, but bright ideas always trump cynicism.

I sent these excerpts to The Oregonian for review. After inspecting both posts, an editor at The Oregonian said (my emphasis):

My own view in looking at the two pieces is that the Brown piece is a straight-out lift from a piece by Dave Treibel in “The Stump” by a blog on OregonLive.com. The Treibel piece is dated Feb. 1, 2010 and the Brown piece is dated several days later.

I agree that it’s a “straight-out lift.” Unfortunately, it’s one of many.

In the same post, Brown lifts quite dated and inaccurate information from a Los Angeles Times article published back in 2008. Brown says:

In many cases, the train runs right up the middle of the street –  stations are literally on the curb.

Portland officials also drew a square around downtown and declared it a “fare less zone.” If you ride the train or the bus only within that zone, it’s free.

An identical passage from Steve Hymon’s LA Times articlefrom Aug. 18, 2008 reads:

In many cases, the trains run right up the middle of the street — stations are literally on the curb.

Portland officials also drew a square around downtown and declared it a “fareless zone.” If you ride the train or the bus only within that zone, it’s free.

I cataloged various other similarities in this Brown column to other sources here.

Another example comes from a Brown column from December 2010, where he wrote:

Friedman’s ideas were embraced by President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and lauded by many in the business world. But they were also controversial because of the deep cuts in government spending and the more restricted role they entailed for government in buffering citizens from economic forces.

Aside from an added comma, those sentences are taken vebatim from this CNNMoney.com obituary of Milton Friedman published in 2006.

Here’s another example. Brown’s July 8, 2010 column reads:

On TV cameras in the court room, that are presently prohibited, Kagan is for them. Good for her on this issue. Her colleagues have for years thrown up the hoary arguments the television would undermine the high court’s “ethos” and bring forth the justices’ faces to C-Span-watching terrorists.

Again, he has swiped text and ideas from a Los Angeles Times editorial published a few days earlier on July 3, 2010:

One of the few subjects about which Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was forthright at her confirmation hearings was cameras in the high court. She’s for ’em. Not for the hoary arguments that televising the court’s proceedings would undermine its “ethos” and introduce the justices’ faces to C-SPAN-watching terrorists.

Here are some excerpts from Jim Brown’s column published on January 28, 2010:

For years, conservatives have argued that judicial restraint requires deferring to the choices of the elected branches of government. Statutes have been on the books since 1906 limiting corporate spending in federal election campaigns.

This same conservative court has for years limited free speech of government employees, students, and maintained a willingness to muzzle defendants through gag orders in criminal cases, but felt compelled to look out for corporate free speech. The message seems clear that conservative justices are happy to be activists when it serves their ideological agenda.

Now look at this op-ed by UC Irvine professor Erwin Chemerinsky which appeared in the Los Angeles Times a week earlier. Note the similar passages as well as the sequence of ideas and argument:

For years, conservatives have argued that judicial restraint requires deferring to the choices of the elected branches of government. McCain-Feingold was a continuation of statutes that have existed since 1906 limiting corporate spending in federal election campaigns.

The conservative majority, which in recent years has dramatically limited free speech in other areas such as for government employees and for students was willing to expand the free speech of corporations. There is no way to see this other than as the conservative justices using judicial review to advance the traditional conservative ideological agenda.

The Los Angeles Times declined comment when I asked them about the similarities in these passages.

The sixth paragraph in this Jim Brown piece from August 19, 2010 reads:

Shortly after the Times story ran, conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviewed Abdul Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, while guest-hosting “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox. In hindsight, the segment is remarkable for its cordiality. “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,” Ingraham says of the mosque project, adding at the end of the interview, “I like what you’re trying to do.”

Now compare this excerpt from a Salon article published on Aug. 16, 2010:

Conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviews Abdul Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, while guest-hosting “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox. In hindsight, the segment is remarkable for its cordiality. “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,” Ingraham says of the Cordoba project, adding at the end of the interview, “I like what you’re trying to do.”

Again, there’s not even a hint of citation for any of the above excerpts. Brown just brazenly passes them off as his own. This pattern is too pervasive and frequent to be excused as accidental or isolated “lapses.” Also, Brown has tweaked and modified the text enough to show that this is not merely a matter of sloppiness.

The above examples are only a sampling of instances where Brown has lifted text. I’d bet the farm there’s more.

From what I’ve seen, when Brown lifts text, it’s usually only a few sentences, here and there. But it’s still wrong to do this without attribution, especially if you are being widely re-published. (In fact, if you’re using online search engines, the multitude of  web sites that dutifully publish Brown’s columns serve to camouflage the original work.)  He doesn’t do it in every paragraph, nor in every opinion piece. But he identifies himself as a writer, yet has repeatedly committed one of the biggest sins in writing.

Brown’s Wikipedia page says that “Though his training is in law, his knowledge of Louisiana history and politics is seemingly unlimited. Brown sometimes teaches classes in Louisiana history, of which he is an undisputed authority…”

High praise, indeed. And there seems to be some truth to that; most of the unattributed lifts occur when Brown is discussing national issues rather than Louisiana issues. Perhaps Brown is outside his comfort zone on these matters, or maybe he just gets lazy. Either way, it’s wrong to swipe ideas and words from other writers. That’s just common sense.

Granted, these lifted quotes rarely form the heart of Brown’s commentaries. They’re just sprinkled around, here and there. They aren’t the worst cases of intellectual theft I’ve ever seen, but, then again, they don’t have to be. Any intentional misappropriation of text is too much. It’s unethical, and Brown knows better. After all, he is a writer, author, publisher, radio pundit, father of Campbell Brown, the a famous TV news reporter, and “Hall of Fame” caliber ex-politician. This is a man who continues to claim he was wrongfully convicted of making false statements to the FBI, yet he needlessly harms his remaining credibility by stealing other people’s work.

Brown signs off on all his columns with the phrase “Peace and Justice.” Well, Brown does no justice to his sources when he uses their ideas and words without attribution. And if exposing this fact creates less peace for the numerous outlets which reprint his columns – so be it.

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