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The Fake Letters to the Editor Project

Josh Marshall has a couple of items on phony letters to the editor, starting with the immediate example of letters home from soldiers on the front in Iraq, reporting on how well everything's going, but unfortunately for the Defense Dept PR shop, a little too obviously identical for most papers.

It's a great topic, and there are probably hundreds of examples. It must be a drag to be an op-ed page or letters editor, trying to figure out whether any of the submissions from various local names were really written by that person or not. Just to add one more example, even state-level conservative think tanks can't manage to produce their own ideas or prose. A colleague in Ohio sent me this editor's note from the Columbus Dispatch. I can't link to it, because it requires a subscription, but I could link to this previous note that was cited in Romenesko.

Clipping from: Columbus Dispatch Clipping Date: 10/7/2003 OUR OPINION? VIEWS SHOULD BE ONE'S OWN

Benjamin Marrison
For the second time in a month, we have discovered that a guest writer
plagiarized part of an opinion piece published in The Dispatch. In an Aug. 18 column, Joshua C. Hall, a director of research at the Buckeye Institute and a lecturer in the School of Management at Capital University, suggested that Ohio privatize more of its work force to save money. A little more than a week ago, an interested reader provided me with proof
that some of what Hall purported to be his own work was eerily (and sadly)
similar to the views of Geoffrey F. Segal of the Reason Public Policy Institute.
A column Segal had written on the same topic was published Aug. 6 in The Sun of Baltimore. Five passages were nearly identical. For example, Segal had written: ''Perhaps the chief benefit of outsourcing
is that it allows states to devote fewer internal resources to burdensome
back-office administrative tasks and instead concentrate resources on the
core mission, responsibilities and programs of state government.''
Hall followed with: ''The chief benefit would be a state government devoting
fewer internal resources to burdensome back-office administrative tasks.
Instead, state agencies would be able to concentrate on their core mission
and more effectively hold their programs accountable for results.''
When confronted, Hall said the words were his own and that he did not know
how they ended up in Segal's column.
Finally, after meeting with Glenn Sheller, our editorial page editor, the
president of the Buckeye Institute, Samuel R. Staley, admitted that the
research and text were prepared by a public-relations firm in Alexandria,
Va., and sent to people who would use the information in such columns.
When submitted, the column carried the dual byline of Staley and Hall. Our
policy requires a single byline on an opinion piece, and they chose to use
Hall's name.
As a result of this journalistic fraud, The Dispatch no longer will publish
columns submitted by Hall or Staley.
There is great irony in this tragedy: Two men who work for a think tank had
to ''borrow'' ideas from a public-relations firm for the column.
I share this with you not to air dirty laundry but to demonstrate our
commitment to honest journalism and to emphasize how sacred we hold the
public's trust.
Some apparently do not realize that when we allow a guest columnist on our
Forum page, we are trusting that the writing belongs to the person whose
name appears atop the column. The reader, unless told otherwise, believes
that the words and thoughts are those of the author.
We faced a similar problem with a professor at Ohio State University.
On Aug. 27, we reported that Tunc Aldemir, who teaches mechanical
engineering, submitted a column using several passages written by someone
else. The passages were not attributed to the author -- a public-relations
firm in Washington, D.C.
The Dispatch will no longer publish columns bearing Aldemir's name.
We'd be interested in knowing whether you think the punishment in these
cases fits the ethical crime.
We hope to prevent this from happening again. We will send reminders to
those who write for us that their submissions must be their own work, unless
they provide credit to the originating source.Because we cannot cross-reference every submission, we likely won't know
when someone misrepresents his or her work.
But in this Internet age, breaches of trust almost certainly will be
exposed. And when they come to our attention, we'll expose them.
We hope the word thieves will get the message.
Benjamin J. Marrison is editor of The Dispatch.

Part of what makes this just pathetic, and neither a "tragedy" nor "ironic," as the editor would have it, is that the Right has put millions upon millions of dollars into building these state-level "think tanks" like the Buckeye Institute, which should really be called PR tanks, and yet they are filled with people so lazy and lame that they can't even write their own stuff. So lazy, in fact, that they managed to get themselves banned from their capitol city paper!

Incidentally, this is one more example of why liberals shouldn't rush to emulate everything on the right.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 13, 2003 | Permalink


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