Plagiarize this post

Jody Rosen’s Slate article about The Bulletin (of Houston, not Bend, I should note), an almost entirely plagiarized newspaper Rosen discovered when tipped off that her own stories might have been fodder for it should be a real mind-bender for any journalist who’s spent some time thinking about plagiarism and intellectual property. The questions it raises are really pretty fantastic — what does it mean when an editor and reporter cobble together a free weekly in a mishmash of other people’s writings? What should we call the product? It’s not a “fake” paper like The Onion … but it’s not really a real paper either. Rosen sums it up best: “It seemed preposterous, and the longer I spent squinting into the mustard-and-magenta glow of the Bulletin’s Web 0.0-quality Internet site, the more I began to suspect that I was the dupe of a conceptual art prank, a cheeky Borgesian commentary on the slipperiness of language and authorship. Or something.”

We like to say that plagiarism matters for a few different reasons: it’s stealing, it cheapens people’s hard work, it makes the reader lose trust in journalism. To me, the last point is the main one that matters, as I don’t think simplistic statements like “it’s wrong” really get to the heart of the issue. But when an entire paper is a lie, do the readers even matter? To me, The Bulletin story is more funny than wrong — it’s so far beyond the pale that you can’t use normal ideas of what plagiarism means to think about it.

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