Question: When you’re an alleged journalist, writing a book about journalism, what’s the one sin you really want to avoid, both because it’s deeply unethical and painfully ironic?
Stupidly Obvious Answer: Plagiarism.
Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times—the head honcho, on the editorial side—was already a highly questionable figure after her extremely rocky tenure at the Gray Lady ended in an ignominious firing. A Politico story from 2013 outlined her early issues, which began almost before she’d cleaned out her predecessor’s desk. In short:
In recent months, Abramson has become a source of widespread frustration and anxiety within the Times newsroom. More than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff, all of whom spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity, described her as stubborn and condescending, saying they found her difficult to work with.
More than a dozen! It’s like they were walking around wearing sandwich boards that said, “please ask me about my terrible boss.” That unpopularity contributed to her firing in 2014, for reasons the Wall Street Journal summed up as: “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication, and mistreatment of colleagues.”
Notice how I put those last words in quotes? That’s standard journalistic practice when using the words of a writer who is not you, a truism I mention now because, four years after her firing, Abramson is back in the news. She’s got a new book called Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, which is an objectively hilarious title considering the fallout, but hold on, hold on, we’ll get there.
There is so much to unravel. First, some background: Merchants is the story of four news outlets Abramson followed for a few years (very loosely, it seems) after her Times career came to an end, while simultaneously lecturing at Harvard. The four are Buzzfeed, Vice, WaPo, and her alma mater, the NYT. The book was released this week.
Next, I’d like to travel back in time to earlier this week, when Abramson gave an embarrassing interview to New York in which she revealed that she doesn’t record interviews because of her “almost photographic memory.” The Internet jumped all over her for that one, and rightly so, but there are some other real gems, such as her ludicrous self-perception: “I always have thought that I was mainly a reporter and a digger.”
Her credibility as it pertains to Merchants was shot to pieces immediately when it came out on publication that there an almost unbelievable number of factual errors in the book, some of which clearly stemmed from her practice of—you guessed it—not recording interviews. Here’s Arielle Duhaime-Ross, a journalist who appears in Abramson’s book:
It’s recently come to my attention that I appear in a single paragraph of @JillAbramson upcoming book, Merchants of Truth. In that one paragraph there are SIX errors and several false implications. 3/21— Arielle Duhaime-Ross (@adrs) January 14, 2019
For reference, here's what she wrote (this picture was sent to me, and I verified it with a digital copy from the publisher):
4/21 pic.twitter.com/9McQFyS0X0— Arielle Duhaime-Ross (@adrs) January 14, 2019
I met @JillAbramson in June '17 in the VICE office. We chatted for less than 40 minutes. She took handwritten notes. I have not heard from her since, by which I mean she did not contact me for a fact-check.
5/21— Arielle Duhaime-Ross (@adrs) January 14, 2019
Duhaime-Ross goes on to list the jaw-dropping number of mistakes Abramson made just on this one small section of the book—errors which included calling her a “trans woman” mistakenly. (This mistake was corrected for the final version of the book, but most of them were not.) And she's far from alone, as both Vox and the Observer laid out in excruciating detail. This one is particularly bad:
Wow, this is a straight up lie in @JillAbramson's book. I was this reporter. Like every other reporter there,i was told by experts not to walk around with a PPE unless you were in the ICU. I also worked alongside Times reporters, who a. Gave me that advice and b. Did the same. pic.twitter.com/F5hgL1nsxM— Danny Gold (@DGisSERIOUS) January 9, 2019
There are even some pretty embarrassing small-scale screw-ups, like saying the city of Charlottesville is in North Carolina, or identifying a Long Island white supremacist as “southern.” Abramson, who earned a $1 million advance for her book, clearly spent none of it on a fact-checker.
If this little summary ended here, it would be sufficient to condemn her to the bowels of bad journalist hell. But—my God—we haven't even gotten to the plagiarism!
The most egregious of Abramson's many screw-ups came to light yesterday, in two separate Twitter threads. The first, by Vice News Tonight correspondent Michael C. Moynihan, made the case in compelling, incontrovertible side-by-side comparisons:
All three chapters on Vice were clotted with mistakes. Lots of them. The truth promised in Merchants of Truth was often not true. While trying to corroborate certain claims, I noticed that it also contained…plagiarized passages.— Michael C Moynihan (@mcmoynihan) February 6, 2019
The following examples from the final book—not the galley—are only from the Vice chapters (I didn't check the others). So let's begin…Here is Abramson on Gavin McInnes (whom she interviewed) and the Ryerson Review of Journalism https://t.co/hx0XcyZ89kpic.twitter.com/qroN59gyVk— Michael C Moynihan (@mcmoynihan) February 6, 2019
This passage, on former Vice News editor Jason Mojica, is lifted from a 2010 Time Out magazine piece, with small modifications: https://t.co/csNoONZQhXpic.twitter.com/aiQzwKEStl— Michael C Moynihan (@mcmoynihan) February 6, 2019
This paragraph can be sourced to two places: a masters thesis and a 2013 New Yorker piece by Lizzie Widdicombe https://t.co/ZWX5RgKxlahttps://t.co/Ux6gdDO9Qgpic.twitter.com/tSIKyRoKDP— Michael C Moynihan (@mcmoynihan) February 6, 2019
It goes on and on—Moynihan finds a wealth of examples from just three chapters—but this is my favorite because I love irony:
Here Abramson—in a treatise on journalistic ethics—copies a passage from…the Columbia Journalism Reviewhttps://t.co/mZZlA4odqwpic.twitter.com/gZVxQ1dc3Z— Michael C Moynihan (@mcmoynihan) February 6, 2019
Then Ian Frisch, who ran Relapse Magazine from 2011 to 2014, chimed in with his own undeniable evidence that he'd been pilfered in Merchants:
THREAD: Jill Abramson plagiarized me at least seven times in her new book, Merchants of Truth.— Ian Frisch (@IanFrisch) February 7, 2019
pic.twitter.com/EdWb9GBUpN— Ian Frisch (@IanFrisch) February 7, 2019
pic.twitter.com/NV8JeX4bSO— Ian Frisch (@IanFrisch) February 7, 2019
pic.twitter.com/EgO5O0AzLb— Ian Frisch (@IanFrisch) February 7, 2019
Again, it goes on. Abramson's guilt is crystal clear, and I'd be shocked if these are the only two journalists who come out with examples of blatant plagiarism on her part. Rather than the “reporting” and “digging” Abramson purports to love, it seems as though, for these chapters at least, she simply read other people's work about the outlets she was covering and stole great heaping chunks for her book…well, that's when she wasn't conducting cursory interviews and getting the facts wrong, anyway.
Now would be a great time to remind you, as Hannah Gais sought to do on Twitter, that Jill Abramson teaches nonfiction at Harvard.
from the description of abramson's course at harvard on reporting in the trump era pic.twitter.com/mamWNlRy1w— hannah gais (@hannahgais) January 14, 2019
If you can’t read the small print, the class description begins with this sentence:
At its heart, journalism is a truth-seeking exercise based on reported facts, careful collection of evidence from witnesses, and reasoned, dispassionate analysis.
Contrary to those lofty claims, Abramson has disgraced her profession with lazy, negligent reporting and outright theft. Her response thus far (on Fox News), and the response from her publisher, have been wholly inadequate. In fact, there is no response that would suffice. Her woeful, discredited book should be pulled from the shelves, and Abramson herself should never step foot in a newsroom or a classroom again. How many ways can one “journalist” compromise her own integrity before she’s held accountable?