Just words: Is it plagiarism, homage, or business as usual when public figures "forget" to footnote?

Dennis Baron 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  
Clinton’s 42%.

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.


read the rest on The Web of Language


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English                                   	
University of Illinois	

608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


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