By Denise Tessier
It appears we can now add “plagiarist” to the list of labels already ascribed to that conservative columnist of evangelical fervor, Cal Thomas.
Media Matters for America is reporting that a newspaper in Temple, Texas decided not to run Thomas’ syndicated column this past week after an editor noticed suspicious similarity between it and reportage that had already appeared in The New York Times.
Thomas, who is regularly carried by the Albuquerque Journal, has since acknowledged that he used information from the Times and should have given the paper credit. (In fact, now that the issue has come to light, his column as it appeared Sunday on the Patriot Post blog prominently credits the New York Times for the information. The column obviously had been updated, as its comment stream continued to carry posts questioning the lack of credit.)
Like fellow web sites Media Matters and Romanesko, the site that first broke the plagiarism question, I will include three paragraphs each from Thomas’ column and the Times later on in this post, so readers can decide for themselves whether he lifted enough to be called a plagiarist.
What’s interesting is that Thomas omitted this simple attribution in the first place. It’s not out of line to wonder whether he left off credit because in giving it, he would be admitting to fellow conservatives that he reads the Times. That would certainly cut into his conservative credibility, considering how the conservative movement has demonized The Gray Lady of journalism.
A recent column on the American Thinker web site – and the plethora of poison-pen comments it spawned – summarizes venomously not only how much the Right hates The New York Times, but how vitriolic the public has become in parroting that viewpoint.
It’s an effective tool, demonizing the Times, because ideologues don’t have to debate or answer to the issues it raises through reportage on critical issues, like Saturday’s piece on risks to the environment from ramping up natural gas drilling, for example. By demonizing the Times, one doesn’t have to threaten one’s own beliefs by reading the Times; all is dismissed as not worth discussing and as inherently inaccurate – simply because it was in the Times.
Over the years, the Times has certainly not been perfect, and even has run some questionable reporting (Judith Miller’s stint as a stenographer for the Bush Administration in the run-up to the second Iraq war immediately comes to mind).
But to dismiss all of the good work the Times does journalistically because of certain editorial or managerial missteps would be as unfair to the Times as it would be to discount the good work Albuquerque Journal reporters and editors do in spite of the Journal as an ideological institution.
Speaking of which, the Journal hasn’t run the Thomas’ column in question. Released Feb. 23, the Thomas column normally would have run Sunday (Feb. 27), but didn’t. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Journal held it back as a questionable column; nor is it necessarily even an indication the Journal was aware of the plagiarism problem. Staff columnist Michael Coleman, who doesn’t always produce a Sunday column, did have a piece Sunday, which would take precedence over a syndicated column in allocating space on the page.
As promised, here for comparison are paragraphs from the New York Times article and the Cal Thomas column, which were first pointed out on Romenesko:
NEW YORK TIMES (Feb. 16)
The Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $9.1 million last year in proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. The agency used numbers as low as $6.8 million during the George W. Bush administration.
The Food and Drug Administration declared that life was worth $7.9 million last year, up from $5 million in 2008, in proposing warning labels on cigarette packages featuring images of cancer victims.
The Transportation Department has used values of around $6 million to justify recent decisions to impose regulations that the Bush administration had rejected as too expensive, like requiring stronger roofs on cars.
CAL THOMAS (Feb. 24) (Note: This link has been updated to include credit to the Times; the original appeared as below).
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the value of a human life at $9.1 million. It reached this determination while proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. During the Bush administration, EPA calculated our value at $6.8 million. Was the difference in price caused by inflation? The EPA didn’t say.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) arrived at its own figure for the value of an American life. It says each life is worth $7.9 million. That, too, is an increase from the $5 million value FDA had assigned each human American life in 2008. The agency calculated our value while proposing new and tougher warning labels on cigarettes that include pictures of cancer victims.
The Transportation Department — yes, Transportation — put our worth at $6 million while seeking to justify recent decisions to impose regulations the Bush administration had rejected as too costly, such as stronger roofs on cars.
Media Matters says Thomas responded to the plagiarism charge by saying:
. . .he did read the Times’ story and drew information from it, but did not consider that plagiarism.
“Why would I be so stupid being the most widely syndicated columnist in America to plagiarize something from the front page of The New York Times. I might as well go out and have an affair with someone running a video camera on me. You don’t think I’m that stupid, do you?”
Which raises another question: Cal Thomas is the most widely syndicated columnist in America? If true, that helps explain why his decades-long tirade against “government schools” (what we once called public education) has been able to gain so much traction. In giving Thomas a prominent platform, the Journal has helped promote vouchers, the tear-down of public education and Thomas’ other so-called “moral majority” views. If Thomas is indeed the most widely distributed columnist in the country, that is a disturbing fact. And it’s likely the the Journal will ignore the plagiarism complaint and continue to run him.
Which is why it’s important for readers to be aware of this incident, an episode that points up not only plagiarism of the Times, but hypocrisy on Thomas’ part.
Speaking of the Times on unrelated topics: We haven’t heard the last from Bill Richardson. The former governor had a guest opinion piece in the Times’ Sunday edition (Feb. 27), “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, blasting his successor’s administration and her “legislative supporters” for trying to roll back some or all of the film industry incentives he helped put in place.