Government & Politics

Oversights or plagiarism? Jim Brown’s mea culpas don’t add up

My piece about the lifted texts in Jim Brown’s online opinion columns grew new legs on Sunday when Gambit published a 3,000-word story on the matter, and a 3,000-word sidebar so readers could compare excerpts from Brown’s columns with their original sources. Hearty applause to writers Kevin Allman and Alex Woodward for pursuing this issue in depth.

Gambit contacted Brown about the obviously lifted texts peppering his columns. Louisiana’s former secretary of state — who did time for lying to the FBI about his activities during a subsequent stint as insurance commissioner — reviewed their findings, which both overlap and go beyond what I first exposed, and wrote a response that Gambit printed in full. Here’s the crux of it:

You apparently correctly pointed out that in a few of these articles, there were a few sentences that either were not properly attributed or were not surrounded in quotes.…

If any mistakes were made, they were not intentional.

[A]ny errors in punctuation or proper attribution are purely an oversight.

Basically, Brown diminishes the extent of the problem and claims that “if mistakes were made,” it’s just due to run-of-the-mill sloppiness.

If we were talking about a few isolated instances, I suppose I could take Brown at his word. But there’s more than a few suspicious passages, and worse, the problems are more serious than forgotten attributions and quotation marks. A closer look at these suspicious passages shows that Brown often modifies the texts he lifts from other sources before inserting them into his columns; he rarely copies them verbatim. Sometimes he changes a few words, sometimes more. But either way, the changers are significant – not just lapses in punctuation or proper crediting of the original author. He changes these texts in ways that seem calculated to make them look like his own work – i.e. to disguise plagiarism. .

Exactly how does that qualify as mere “oversight?” That’s what I want Brown to explain. Let’s break it down: forgetting quotation marks is a sophomoric mistake, pure and simple; forgetting to attribute quotes to their source, that’s a bone-headed blunder as well; committing both errors in the same text is much more deceptive, , because readers assume that sentences without quotes or attribution represent the author’s own words and thoughts.

Nonetheless, I suppose a writer could be excused if such a combination of lapses occurred once or twice.   But for a writer to repeatedly make both these errors in combination while also slightly modifying the source text to fit the derivative work… well, that’s exactly what plagiarists  do. They lift work from others, tweak the source material, and then pass it off as their own.

And when they’re confronted, they usually plead sloppiness, just as Brown did.

On examination, the sloppiness explanation collapses for another reason as well. The plagiarist may be clumsy as hell when it comes to basic matters like quotes and attribution, but look how deft they are when it comes to modifying stolen sentences to fit the pieces they’re (sort of) writing.

And why are you modifying a lifted passage in the first place, if you earnestly intended to put it in quotes, but – oops! – forgot? And why are you only modifying the text to blend into the rest of your article — adding synonyms, adjusting grammar, deleting a phrase or two — rather than using brackets and ellipses as other writers do to signal minor changes in quoted material? Shaping “quotes” in such a fashion doesn’t make sense, unless you’re just using those lifted texts to generate quick and easy content for yourself, while tweaking it a bit to obscure the intellectual theft taking place.

In short, exposed plagiarists want you to believe they inadvertently but repeatedly made clusters of “sloppy” mistakes in a coordinated way that’s both hard to detect yet advantageous to their work. Apparently they think we’re stupid enough to buy anything.

Another problem with Brown’s self-defense: If these lapses into plagiarism were truly “oversights” on his part, why don’t we see more of the accurate  – and properly credited – quotations he claims to be striving for? That’s the telltale sign of bad faith, in my view. The majority of suspicious excerpts Gambit and I have pointed out (and surely it’s not an exhaustive compilation) show more slightly modified passages than routine, fully acknowledged quotations. .

For examples of this pattern in Brown’s work, you can re-read my analysis of select texts that I believe have been lifted. Or, if you prefer a fresher sample of Brown’s dodgy recycling, look no further than the second sentence of his latest column, published on July 7. It reads:

In the Casey Anthony case, we heard about a hard-partying single mother who fails to report her toddler missing for a month, then lied to police about a kidnapping by a non-existent nanny.

Now look at the second sentence from this USA TODAY story, published the day before:

The narrative became familiar: Hard-partying single mother fails to report her toddler missing for a month, then lies to police about a kidnapping by a non-existent nanny.

Please comment below if you think regular occurrences like the above are merely unintentional oversights, as Brown claims. Obviously I reject that view, but I will add that even if that interpretation were true, Brown’s online outlets should still think twice before re-publishing such an error-prone author.

In the Gambit article, Brown states that he’s his own editor. Well, he should probably get a new one, but that’s up to him. Again, my main interest isn’t what Brown does on his blog. The point all along has been that his columns are flawed because they contain texts lifted from other sources, and are therefore not worthy of being republished throughout the region on political blogs and news web sites. In light of the damning evidence, I think a little accountability is in order. Hopefully the recent Gambit piece will push Brown’s online publishers to take appropriate steps.

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About Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • Polymnia

    “Obviously I reject that view, but I will add that even if that interpretation were true, Brown’s online outlets should still think twice before re-publishing such an error-prone author.”

    Ok, yaknowwhat…. here’s the deal. If this guy were a politician – which he was – like bothGeorge Bushes, like John Kennedy, like Barack Obama and both our US Senators, etc., this guy could have everything GHOST WRITTEN, right?

    They could even plagiarize out right?

    And it would not matter in terms of their being allowed to continue speaking and getting publication?

    And the Gambit and TP and you name any professional organization can say things like “sources report” and get away with it… right?

    And the TP can say cases were decided without saying which judge made the decision…. and the Gambit can report that the council voted for a bill without saying what the vote was or who voted for whom….

    BUT Jim Brown had better start putting quoties around his quotes and attributing sources where appropriate or else he is threatened with being BANNED???

    I happen to agree with the points about quotes and attributions. I think this guy was a terrible elected representative. I think his conviction was just. Heck I don’t even agree with his opinions in his columns typically.

    But compared to some of the so-called journalists in this town – which he is ***NOT*** – he looks more ethical than what we often see and somehow the idea of someone being SILENCED just seems plain wrong.

    One other thing: The Times Picayune regularly posts un-attributed opinions.

    ARE ALL THOSE OPINIONS WRITTEN BY THEM? or are some written FOR them and submitted? Supposedly that happens. That seems like something reserved for the 9th level of journalistidc hell to me but who in the heck is going to investigate that? The “journalists”? —>>> Doubt it.