Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, says she wants to celebrate and protect journalistic standards in her new book Merchants of Truth. But last month, she was accused of making factual errors in the book. And this week, she was accused of plagiarizing multiple passages.
In a lengthy Twitter thread, Vice correspondent Michael C. Moynihan compared multiple passages from Abramson’s finished book — which officially came out on Tuesday, February 5 — to passages from articles by other writers. The compared passages all contain the same information organized in the same way, often contain similar sentence structure, and sometimes contain echoes of exact phrasing.
In Merchants of Truth, Abramson writes of Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, “He wrote a column in The American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan, calling young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his ilk often used) who would believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with light skin. He lamented the views of his magazine’s readers, saying they were ‘brainwashed by communist propaganda.’”
Moynihan matches that paragraph with a similar passage from the Ryerson Review of Journalism: “In August 2003, McInnes wrote a column in The American Conservative, a magazine run by Pat Buchanan. In the magazine, he called young people a bunch of knee-jerk liberals (a phrase McInnes and his cronies use often) who’ll believe anyone with dark skin over anyone with light skin. He laments the liberal views of most of the people who pick up his magazine, saying they’re ‘brainwashed by communist propaganda.’”
While the Abramson passage contains minor tweaks — like changes to the tense and swapping out “cronies” for “ilk” — it’s still by and large extremely similar to the Ryerson passage. It contains the same information, mostly phrased in the same way.
“There’s plenty more — enormous factual errors, other cribbed passages, single or unsourced claims — but this should give a sense,” Moynihan wrote on Twitter.
*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
Writer Ian Frisch says that Abramson also plagiarized from him. In a Twitter thread, he noted that Merchants of Truth quotes extensively from his 2014 profile of Vice writer Thomas Morton. Frisch’s article is credited in Abramson’s endnotes, but Frisch says the citation isn’t enough. “The endnotes do not go into the depth of how much this section about Thomas relied on my article. She quotes Thomas as if he’s speaking to her directly,” Frisch wrote on Twitter. “This would not fly for a mag article.”
“I certainly didn’t plagiarize in my book, and there’s 70 pages of footnotes showing where I got the information,” Abramson said in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday night. On Twitter, she added in a series of tweets, “I endeavored to accurately and properly give attribution to the hundreds of sources that were part of my research. I take seriously the issues raised and will review the passages in question.”
“Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth is an important, exhaustively researched and meticulously sourced book about the media business in a critical moment of transition,” said a representative for Simon & Schuster, Abramson’s publisher, in an emailed statement to Vox. “It has been published with an extraordinary degree of transparency toward its subjects; each of the four news organizations covered in the book was given ample time and opportunity to comment on the content, and where appropriate the author made changes and corrections. If upon further examination changes or attributions are deemed necessary we stand ready to work with the author in making those revisions.”
The plagiarism accusations echo earlier claims that portions of Merchants of Truth were inaccurate
The plagiarism accusations aren’t the first controversy to befall Merchants of Truth. Shortly before its publication, multiple current and former staffers of Vice took issue with the way they were portrayed in the book. Abramson is largely critical of Vice, but the issue isn’t, they wrote, her tone. It is that she made factual errors in describing them, errors that range from trivial things like the color of one person’s boots to more serious issues like misgendering a subject. All of the Vice staffers who found errors in Abramson’s book said they were never contacted for a fact-check.
At the time, I wrote that the errors in the book suggested it might never have been fact-checked at all, especially since book publishing is set up to disincentivize the practice, in part by requiring authors to pay for it out of pocket. Since then, however, Abramson has said that she did hire an independent fact-checker.
“I had a fact checker,” she told the New Yorker in January. “Every interview that I did I transcribed right away and, no, I didn’t call back everyone that I interviewed. There just wasn’t time to do that, but the book was fact-checked.”
Another recent Abramson interview, however, suggests that there might be issues with her notes. Talking to The Cut in an interview published Tuesday, Abramson described her typical interview process, which does not appear to involve an audio recording device of any kind: “I do not record. I’ve never recorded,” she said. “I’m a very fast note-taker. When someone kind of says the ‘it’ thing that I have really wanted, I don’t start scribbling right away. I have an almost photographic memory and so I wait a beat or two while they’re onto something else, and then I write down the previous thing they said.”
While it’s certainly possible that Abramson is able to record notes verbatim, by hand, “a beat or two” after someone has finished giving a quote and while they are actively talking about something else, it’s also the case that such a practice is widely discouraged among journalists as being not conducive to accuracy.
This practice also suggests that Abramson’s fact-checker would have had to check the quotes in Merchants of Truth not against a recording of Abramson’s interviews with her subjects, but against her existing interview notes. And that, freelance fact-checker Rob Liguori told me last year, is not the ideal way to check facts.
“I endeavor to verify every quotation in a book, and there is a hierarchy of what constitutes good backup for quotes,” Liguori said. “Most effective would be a discussion with the source about the substance of the quote — though I do not read back quotations to sources verbatim because of concerns about ‘source remorse’ — followed by checking the quotation against an audio recording or a professionally-prepared transcript. Reliance on the author’s contemporaneous, often piecemeal notes is the least reliable way to check a quotation. (Dear writers: please tape your interviews!)”
Regardless of how rigorous Abramson’s fact-checking really was and whether or not she really plagiarized passages of her book, the many scandals surrounding this book mean that Merchants of Truth is having trouble fulfilling the role it was ostensibly created for.
Abramson has long positioned the book as a robust defense of traditional print journalism and its values of truth and accuracy in the face of attacks from the White House as well as competition from digital media upstarts. But the cloud of accusations around Merchants of Truth means that it can’t quite function as a defense of truth in and of itself.