A Distressing Number of Journalists Seem to Think Biden Plagiarism Is No Biggie

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
June 5, 2019

Amusingly, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden found himself in yet another plagiarism scandal Tuesday as activists and reporters noticed several portions of his new climate plan were lifted wholesale from advocacy groups, think tanks, and a reporter. The campaign's excuse was weak: they "inadvertently" left off citations, you see. (One wonders how one "inadvertently" takes language from a nonprofit about what "[their] goal" is and unabashedly make it read "Biden's goal.")

Obviously Biden didn't plagiarize anything personally, but it's unquestionably embarrassing given how charges of plagiarism singlehandedly ended his 1988 presidential campaign. You would think the most important thing that would be hammered into his staff is never, ever, ever, ever plagiarize.

I expected some in the media would react to the allegations with flippancy ("Oh Joe He Didn’t!" read one MSNBC chyron today), but a few in media don't even see what the big deal with all this "plagiarism" stuff is in the first place. "[Don't] you go to the experts, to the experts' website, and lift some of their terminology?" CNN's Alisyn Camerota asked a panel of reporters this morning.

To his credit, Bloomberg reporter Joshua Green immediately responded no, you don't do that, not without attributing the terminology in question to others, and how long have you worked in the media again? (I might have added that last part.) "I hear you, I hear you," Camerota responded, with a facial expression indicating otherwise.

The point Camerota seemed to hint at was echoed more blatantly by Politico Magazine's Michael Grunwald, who argued plagiarism from the Democratic frontrunner is merely "agreeing" and that "plagiarizing plans is what politics is about."

Vox's Matt Yglesias has his own piece out today on a similar theme, headlined, "The Joe Biden climate plan plagiarism 'scandal,' explained." As you can imagine, "scandal" is in scare quotes because Yglesias does not find it particularly scandalous. He argues that while in journalism plagiarism is bad, it's a different story when you're talking about politicians writing policy statements.

"In journalism, plagiarism is also bad because you are essentially stealing," he writes. "Journalists write articles in exchange for money. If you take someone else’s writing and reuse it as your own, you’re taking somebody else’s livelihood."

"None of this seems to apply to policy development," he argues, noting that "neither Biden nor [BlueGreen Alliance executive director Kim Glas] is a journalist." The BlueGreen Alliance is "a political advocacy organization ... whose entire purpose is to convince important politicians to copy their policy ideas." Ergo, "while any journalist would be mad about getting plagiarized by another journalist, policy shops and advocacy groups are happy to have their stuff copied by a leading presidential candidate. They would probably prefer to get some credit in a footnote, but it’s fundamentally not a big deal."

There's a glaring problem with this take, namely that Biden didn't just steal from policy shops. He also plagiarized a reporter. To be more specific, a Vox reporter, Yglesias' coworker Umair Irfan. The Biden campaign did "take someone else’s writing and reuse it as [their] own," which earlier Yglesias called "taking somebody else’s livelihood," and they did it to a journalist. And here Yglesias is siding with the thief even though he should be outraged given his formulation ... or hell, out of loyalty?

Yglesias does mentions that Vox was plagiarized in the lede paragraph, but then never again, likely because he recognizes that it would torpedo the false dichotomy he's set up where plagiarism is either journalist-on-journalist or candidate-on-advocate. "Borrowing ideas and policy concepts from specialists, advocates, and interest groups ... is what presidential candidates are supposed to be doing," he writes at one point, excluding only his coworker from the list of victims.

Look, I get it, you want to defend Biden but also happen to work an industry where plagiarism is the cardinal sin. What's a guy to do, other than invent a hitherto unheard of standard where it's okay for politicians to plagiarize?