Just words: Is it plagiarism, homage, or business as usual when public figures "forget" to footnote?
debaron at UIUC.EDU
Thu Feb 21 22:39:21 UTC 2008
There's a new post on the Web of Language:
Just words: Is it plagiarism, homage, or business as usual when
public figures "forget" to footnote?
Hillary Clinton has been charging that her rival for the Democratic
presidential nomination, Barack Obama, offers voters words, not
deeds, and worse than that, the words aren’t even his own. But the
former first lady hasn’t always credited her sources, either. That’s
only a problem if you expect public figures to adhere to the same
code of ethics we demand of college students.
If you haven’t been conscious for the last few days, here’s what this
war of words is all about. In response to Clinton’s charge that he’s
all talk, no action, Obama borrowed some words from the playbook of
his long-time friend and Harvard Law School classmate, Massachusetts
governor Deval Patrick.
While English teachers all over the country responded to the latest
attack that a public figure “forgot” to footnote by wringing their
hands and wondering where they went wrong in their efforts to get
students to credit their sources, Wisconsin’s democrats gave Obama a
decisive victory in the primary, with 58% of the votes compared to
But that didn’t stop the charges and counter-charges, which continue
in the news and on the Net. Clinton didn’t actually come out and
accuse Obama of plagiarism (though others saw her drift and quickly
attacked him for word theft). Her point was that politicians should
use their own words.
Hillary Clinton’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, hired Barbara
Feinman Todd, who directs the journalism program at Georgetown
University in Washington, to ghostwrite her 1996 New York Times best
seller, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, a
book whose on-tape version won a Grammy for Clinton in 1997 and whose
title is not her own words but an homage to the African proverb, “It
takes a village to raise a child.” (Although it was no secret that
Feinman Todd ghosted the book, she's not acknowledged in the credits.)
It takes a village to run a campaign, as well, and the modern version
of that village includes not just fund raisers, but also speech
writers, media advisors, press secretaries, spin doctors, money
launderers, and even dirty tricksters. It might include fact
checkers, research assistants, and librarians, but even if it does,
their job is not to crank out footnotes, because there’s no room for
citations in a sound bite.
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Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801
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