Wherein I Defend Ann Coulter from Charges of Plagiarism (Pro Bono)

Ann Coulter recently took some heat in the blogosphere for allegedly ‘plagiarizing’ from conservative magazines in her 6/29 article, “Thou Shalt Not Commit Religion”. [why are we back 7/20; the rude pundit 7/1; Raw Story 7/20] Raw Story “found Coulter’s work to be at worst plagiarism and at best a cut-and-paste repetition of points authored by conservative religious groups in the early 1990s.” Gods forbid I actually defend that person, but let’s be a little less free with tossing around terms like ‘plagiarism’. The concept of plagiarism is to some extent a ‘moral’ counterpart to copyright infringement, and suffers from some of the same absolutist tendencies.

Plagiarism is an attempt to take credit for someone else’s work. It could be reasonably used to describe either passing off the substance of someone else’s work as one’s own, or as passing off the exact written expression as one’s own — this latter form might also be copyright infringement. Wikipedia [7/27] describes it as

Plagiarism refers to the use of another’s ideas, information, language, or writing, when done without proper acknowledgment of the original source. Essential to an act of plagiarism is an element of dishonesty in attempting to pass off the plagiarised work as original.

It’s quite obvious that Coulter cut-and-pasted descriptions & paraphrased descriptions. Her article is better described as a list with a short 3-paragraph diatribe at the end. Coulter did source some of her list items, when they included full quotes; she failed to source the paraphrased list items. A problem in an academic article and, one might argue, a problem if you are hoping to be taken seriously. But not really a serious problem for someone like Ann Coulter who dashes random crap off in the form of a diatribe. In fact, while acknowledging each & every source of an “idea[], information, language, or writing” might be lovely, it is not common practice. And especially not in the world of editorial columnists & pundits. Wikipedia points out that an essential element of plagiarism is dishonesty. Not to be all morally relativistic here (Ann would hate that), but what qualifies as ‘honesty’ is circumstantial: in some circumstances an omission might be dishonest, and in other circumstances it would be expected or welcomed, and the inclusion of the information might be distracting, misleading, or unnecessary.

In this instance, Ann’s paraphrasings are pretty short and generic to that particular perspective. The point of listing the individual items is to describe the works of art, not create a bibliography of conservative scholarship. Could she have cited to the original articles that she saw the description in? Sure, that would have been helpful. Does it really matter? Eh. So she’s scholastically lazy. That’s hardly the worst of her sins. And it’s not like people are going to be quoting her for her deathless prose.

Rather than trying to diss Ann Coulter for her sloppy citation methods (which sounds a lot less serious than ‘plagiarism’), it would be more interesting & helpful & informative to address the substance (such as it is) of her commentary: explain & contextualize the art of Andre Serrano, Annie Sprinkle, etc.