Plagiarism became an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign when Melania Trump uttered words that Michelle Obama had used.
Mrs. Trump’s speech writer took the blame and said she failed to attribute some statements Mrs. Trump made to her over the telephone.
What most do not understand is that such errors, either accidental or deliberate, are frequent. The internet provides a number of resources to check the originality of phrases, and many a university student has been caught with recycled term papers.
One problem is that a phrase or concept can stick in the mind and falsely present itself as an original thought days or weeks later. This is why A.M. Costa Rica’s editors do not subscribe to La Nación, even though it is a great Spanish-language newspaper. There always is the danger of accidentally stealing the words of another.
About once a month there is a scandal in the United States over a reporter or columnist who stole the words of another. Some have been high profile and involved the newsrooms of top papers.
There is a big difference between stealing words and stealing concepts. Television writers nearly always get most of their news leads from the local papers. But then station reporters and camera operators go and prepare their own on-air sequence.
As bad as plagiarism is, distorting comments to enhance a news story can be worse. Sometimes this, too, is accidental.
In the days before laptops and the internet, reporters used to telephone in news stories in order to make a deadline. Old movies frequently have some reporter calling and saying “Hello, sweetheart, give me rewrite.”
Well in one case, Rewrite was otherwise occupied, and Sweetheart, a good-hearted, attractive young woman with uncertain focus, decided that she could at least take notes from the reporter over the telephone.
Alas, she punctuated the notes with her own comments around which for some reason she put quote marks. Quotes are pretty sacred in the newspaper business, and the rewrite person could be forgiven for mistaking the gushings of Sweetheart for the statements of a distant politician.
One phrase was highly quotable. “My God, it makes you want to cry.” Of course that was Sweetheart’s opinion and not that of the politician. But it turned out that way in the rewritten news story.
In fact, the phrase was so good that the desk editor promoted it to the headline of the news story.
By then Sweetheart was having a gin and tonic elsewhere.
The politician was less than pleased, and the next day the newspaper was compelled to write an apology that should have begun “We are a bunch of idiots . . . . ”
So as Donald Trump and others have learned precision and attention to detail in writing and speaking is a lot harder than it looks.