The publisher of Ann Coulter's latest book brushed away plagiarism charges last week, and now the syndicate that distributes her column is doing the same. As Editor and Publisher reports, Universal Press Syndicate president Lee Salem has declared that there are "no merits" to the allegations that Coulter committed plagiarism in writing her weekly column. "There are only so many ways you can rewrite a fact," Salem said, "and minimal matching text is not plagiarism."
It's not a bad argument. When we cite a CNN story saying that "North Korea test-fired a long-range missile," there are only so many ways to say "North Korea test-fired a long-range missile," and we're not inclined to call ourselves plagiarists just because we say that CNN reported that North Korea test-fired a long-range missile.
But that's not what Coulter has done. As excerpts posted at TPM Muckraker show, Coulter has appropriated extended passages and entire ideas from other sources, and she has done it without even mentioning the sources from which she has stolen.
Yes, there are "only so many ways you can rewrite a fact." But when you're writing a column in which you identify 23 "offensive" samples of speech the government has funded, is it fair game to lift 10 of them nearly word for word from a Heritage Foundation document -- without crediting Heritage? When you're writing an 850-word column on John Roberts and David Souter, is it appropriate to take nearly a third of that column pretty much straight out of a Los Angeles Times profile of Souter -- without mentioning the Los Angeles Times?
Maybe Salem has a point. Maybe it isn't fair to call what Coulter does "plagiarism" per se. But there are other words that fit pretty well, and they ought to be every bit as troubling to the kind of people who peddle Coulter's moralistic claptrap. We're thinking here of "intellectual dishonesty," "literary theft" and plain old "stealing."