Monday, March 11, 2013

How Nate Thayer plagiarizes

I wrote a post the other day, ‘Nate Thayer is a plagiarist’. Some felt my title was too bold. Some people don’t seem to be able to get their heads around the idea that plagiarism can be proven, and so instead you’re supposed to pull your punches and say it was ‘sloppy’, ‘lazy’, ‘mistakes look like they might have been made’, ‘parts are problematic’ and so on. Anything but use the ‘p’ word. I even had a professional journalist tell me on Twitter that I should have stated that what Thayer did was plagiarism, but not that he was a plagiarist!

If you plagiarize, you’re a plagiarist.

More seriously, Sara Morrison has claimed in the Columbia Journalism Review that I didn’t do my research when I stated that Thayer was a plagiarist, because I didn’t contact all his sources first.

Let’s ignore for a moment that she wrote that article without contacting all Thayer’s sources herself. I didnt need to speak to anyone to state he was a plagiarist: it was self-evident from the article in question, because it included the following: 

Missing attributions
Thayer had lifted several pieces of information directly from Mark Zeigler’s 2006 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune without citing him, for example from this passage:

‘President Clinton's administration began thawing relations in the late 1990s, and in October 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first senior-level U.S. government official to visit Kim in North Korea.

Their talks lasted two days, and before leaving, Albright presented the 5-foot-3 Kim a gift – an authentic NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan.

Accompanying Albright on the trip was Bob Carlin, who recently retired after three decades as the chief North Korea analyst for the CIA and State Department.

“We were looking for something that was a little more meaningful than a bottle of scotch or a miniature Statue of Liberty or a Buffalo Bill book – something with more importance to him,” said Carlin, now a visiting scholar at Stanford University. “He may have been initially surprised by it, but you could tell he was pleased. I don't think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense.

“It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn't just an ordinary ball.”’
And this is from Thayer’s article:

‘In October 2000, then Secretary of State Madeline Albright traveled to Pyongyang in the highest-level U.S. visit ever to the country. Albright, after two days of talks, presented the 5-foot-3 Kim Jong Il a gift – a NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. Bob Carlin, who was with Albright on the Pyongyang trip and for three decades a top North Korea analyst for the CIA and State Department, said “We were looking for something that was a little more meaningful than a bottle of scotch or a miniature Statue of Liberty– something with more importance to him. You could tell he was pleased. I don’t think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense. It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn’t just an ordinary ball.”’
The quote is now attributed to Mark Zeigler’s piece with the addition of the hyperlink to the word ‘said’. But the words before the quote don’t have any attribution at all, and are presented as written by Thayer. It’s the same seven pieces of information that are in Zeigler’s passage, in the same order, right before a quote that is (now) attributed to Zeigler. Some of this material out of quotes is very nearly verbatim. Zeigler wrote that Albright

presented the 5-foot-3 Kim a gift – an authentic NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan.
Thayer wrote that she

‘presented the 5-foot-3 Kim Jong Il a gift – a NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan.’

If you can’t see this is plagiarism, you shouldn’t be a journalist.

You don’t need to pick up the phone to see it.

Sloppy attributions
That ‘said’ hyperlink was not in the article when I first read it. Thayer has since explained that some citations in his article were  missing due to an oversight in the editing process. This attribution was added when he spotted this, but it’s barely worthy of that word. There is no mention of Zeigler, or his article’s title, publication, or when it was published. Thayer regards this as an acceptable attribution now. It isn’t. There were other examples of this problem in the piece.

Changed quotes 
The attribution to Zeigler’s piece was added, and Thayer claimed the article was fine. But look at the quote again: what happened to the part where Bob Carlin said ‘or a Buffalo Bill book’? It’s gone. No ellipses. Why? If he was quoting Carlin and meant to cite him all along, why did he remove some words from his quotes without any sign of doing so? If you change quotes, you indicate it very clearly, with ellipses, square brackets and other very familiar conventions. You don’t just change what someone said with no indication. I took this as a sign of someone who had a very cavalier approach to journalistic ethics.

So I didn’t need to call anyone to state Thayer was a plagiarist – there was ample proof of it. But I have now called a few people and as a result I have a better idea, not of whether he is a plagiarist – he is, of course – but of how he did it. And it’s quite remarkable.

Often when a newspaper runs a story, other newspapers become interested in it. A particularly unscrupulous journalistic habit is to call up someone who has given a great interview to another paper and, in effect, get them to say it all again to you. That way, you can run the story with the barest of attribution to the newspaper who got the story in the first place, or perhaps even not give them any credit at all.

Nate Thayer takes this technique into a new realm. He works fast. He is knowledgeable, can track down sources, can charm people, and can get original information. And he does. He has no need to plagiarize on top of it, but he does. When he is researching a story he reads previous stories on the same subject, as journalists all over the world do perfectly ethically. That is one way of finding some good people to interview. The idea is not that you then repeat the information, though, but write a fresh story, with new information. Thayer often gets new information from these sources. He tracks down people, interviews them over the phone and via email.

He did this in March 2012, when he was researching an article about political changes in North Korea for Asia Times. One of the people he interviewed was a septuagenarian expert on the region, Larry Niksch. Thayer emailed him several times and spoke to him on the phone. And that should have been enough.

But somehow it wasn’t. I’ve spoken to Larry Niksch, and he kindly went and looked up his email correspondence with Thayer. And he read me out an email in which Thayer said that he had read an interview with him in a Reuters article from December 2011, which contained the following passage:

‘“I would equate Ju with General Leslie Groves, who headed the U.S. Manhattan Project that produced atomic bombs during World War Two,” said Larry Niksch, who has tracked North Korea for the non-partisan U.S. Congressional Research Service for 43 years.
“Ju runs the day-to-day programs to develop missiles and probably nuclear weapons.”’
Thayer asked Niksch if this quote was accurate, and wrote ‘Would you object if I cite it?’ He added: ‘I won’t do so without your permission.’

Niksch reviewed the quote from the Reuters article. It was accurate. He had said all that to the Reuters reporter, Raju Gopalakrishnan. So Niksch emailed Thayer back and said yes, the quote was accurate, and yes, he gave his permission for him to use it.

Here is how it then appeared in Thayer’s article:

‘“I would equate Ju with General Leslie Groves, who headed the US Manhattan Project that produced atomic bombs during World War II,” said Larry Niksch, a senior associate with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Asian affairs specialist for 43 years with the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. “Ju runs the day-to-day programs to develop missiles and probably nuclear weapons,” he said in an e-mail this week.’
This is both plagiarism and fabrication. 

It’s plagiarism, because Thayer has lifted material from the Reuters piece without citing it as the source anywhere. And it’s fabrication because he has instead claimed it was said to him in an email that week. That’s not what happened. He asked Larry Niksch if the quotes were accurate and if he could cite them – that was very slyly worded, because there were two necessary citations here: one that it was Larry Niksch who had said these words, and the other that he had said them to Reuters. Instead of claiming Niksch had said this in an email to him that week, Thayer should have clearly stated that he had said it to Reuters earlier. He could have added ‘Niksch confirmed to me this was still his view’ or something like that. But the original source of the quote had to be cited.

Thayer thought he had covered his back by asking for Niksch’s permission to ‘cite’ this. But he didn’t say ‘Can I please re-use that quote and pretend you said it to me instead of the Reuters reporter?’ Because Niksch would have said no, of course. But that is what he did. Thayer had no reason at all to ask Niksch to use the quote. He could have had reason to ask if he had been misquoted by Reuters, but as Niksch confirmed the quote was accurate he was then free to use it, as long as he properly cited that it had been said to Reuters. He didn’t. He didn’t because that is why he asked Niksch about it in the first place – he was clearly looking for a way to filch the quote without citing Reuters, making it seem his own, and he got Niksch to unwittingly provide the ‘permission’ to do so. But even if Niksch had emailed back ‘Yes, Mr Thayer, you have my permission to pretend I said those sentences to you this week,’ Thayer shouldn’t have done. He knew the source for the quotes was Reuters. 

It’s an extraordinarily sneaky tactic, because it is pitched just right: Is this accurate, can I cite it, I naturally wouldn’t dream of doing so without your permission. Very few interviewees, if any, would respond to this by saying ‘It is accurate, so you can cite it, of course, but obviously cite that I said it to Reuters, rather than to you, as I haven’t. But I stand by the words.’ You’d really have to be a professional journalist to spot the trick, and even then you probably wouldn’t think of it.

So this is how Thayer plagiarizes. Instead of calling up people other journalists have interviewed and trying to get them to repeat the interview to him so he has an exclusive, he has created a whole new, and significantly worse, con: emailing interviewees quotes they have already given to other journalists and asking if he can ‘cite’ them, then claiming they said the words directly to him.

This is why many of the quotes supposedly obtained by him in the article of his I wrote about the other day are either extremely similar or even verbatim to quotes that his interviewees had said elsewhere previously. He had much the same conversation with Gene Schmiel, for instance, about his article in American Diplomacy. I think he ran around trying to contact everyone Mark Zeigler interviewed and stripping the juicy quotes he got from them of any credit to Zeigler, slyly obtaining the sources’ unwitting collusion in transforming them into his own supposedly original material.

There is a word for taking quotes obtained by other journalists, not properly attributing them, and passing them off as having been said to you. Plagiarism. Even if you get some fresh information out of those same sources on top of that, it’s still plagiarism. 

And tricking fellow journalists’ interviewees into helping you plagiarize? That must surely be a new low in this low, low field.


  1. perhaps we need a new word for the subtler tricks, (A subset of plagiarism, let's not avoid that word) When someone abuses a quote - not showing the omission for example - this can be a "Hari".

    There maybe something one can call a "Thayer" but it strikes me that those seeking fame and fortune by these methods might appreiciate the recognition..?

  2. It strikes me that one of the root causes here is a severe lack of policy and oversight at media organizations about what is/isn't acceptable re: plagiarism and fabrication. The basic assumption is that everyone understands what plagiarism is, and editors need to "trust" reporters to avoid it. Yet here's Nate Thayer (or Jonah Lehrer or...) doing something most of us would consider plagiarism and still believing he's not doing anything wrong. It seems like he's rationalized plagiarism by defining it creatively -- like the Bush administration with torture.

    Because reporters are allegedly serving the public good, they're seen as more trustworthy (at least by editors) than bankers or lawyers or professionals in other industries. But in any industry, if you leave ethical decisions up to the professionals' consciences, they will come up with creative ways to justify abuses. We can't just rely on consensus about ethical practice; media organizations need to have clear, transparent guidelines about what plagiarism and fabrication are, so we don't have people like Thayer coming back and saying "but I've always done it this way and no one complained."

  3. In all this band-wagoning against one man's reputation, one feels someone should point out that Jeremy Duns seems incapable of putting together an articulate accusation that doesn't resort to stylistic techniques more closely associated with uninspiring GCSE English candidates.

    Writing a sentence all by itself like this makes you sound like a dick.

    One only hopes the myriad of great spy novels Mr. Duns has to his name doesn't also rely on such boring and self-righteous stylistic quirks. I applaud your diligence, but your delivery is boring – annoying even.

    1. Hello, salamankar, sorry you don't like the one-paragraph sentence thing.

      I find it quite effective.

      As long as it's not over-used, that is.

      I get the feeling you think you're letting me in on a little secret I don't know about myself. Here's one for you: bothering to sign in to make a childish crack at my prose style in the article without making a single concrete reference to the content doesn't reflect too well on you, either. I'm rarely so bored by something I feel the need to comment on it!

      It's not the most elegant piece I've ever written, I readily admit - perhaps if I took enough time about it I could phrase it to your satisfaction, although ironically I find your own prose style officiously pompous ('One only hopes', 'I applaud your diligence'). But putting my boring and annoying prose style to one side for a moment, and focusing on the content of what I've written (imagine!), I hope you can see that, irritating as it is, what I've written is all true.

      Nate Thayer is a plagiarist.

  4. Another well written piece, I think. It seems that some of the critics of your accusation of plagiarism may have just been too lazy to do the work themselves and disprove your point. Too bad. It would be an interesting discussion if someone else did a close reading of the articles in question and tried to argue that plagiarism is too strong a word.

  5. Good for you, Jeremy. Thayer deserved to be called out and I'm glad you took him to task. We don't need people like him in our profession -- especially a guy that acts like he's "above it all" when he's actually the lowest form of "journalistic" scum one could imagine.