Service of Excuses

February 22nd, 2010

Categories: Arrogance, Audacity, Blame, Excuses, Guilt, Indifference, Manipulation, Suspicion

Who hasn’t made a mistake? But sometimes, oversights and errors are deliberate.

Thanks to computers and people with lots of time on their hands, fists in the cookie jar, especially those belonging to high profile people or those who are blatantly greedy about the cookies they sneak, are outed.

Their transgressions are obvious. Their excuses are pitiable.

Take the spate of plagiarists in the news of late. Zachery Kouwe formerly of The New York Times–he wrote for the DealBook blog–lifted copy from The Wall Street Journal that covered a tangent of the Bernie Madoff story [of all topics…!]. According to John Koblin, writing in the New York Observer on learning of this, Kouwe’s bosses found six additional instances from the Journal and Reuters.

Koblin quoted Kouwe:

“‘I was as surprised as anyone that this was occurring,’ said Mr. Kouwe, referring to the revelation that he had plagiarized. ‘I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper and all that stuff. As soon as I saw, I guess, like six examples, I said to myself, ‘Man what an idiot. What I was thinking?'”

Koblin quoting Kouwe again:

“In the essence of speed, I’ll look at various wire services and throw it into our back-end publishing system, which is WordPress, and then I’ll go and report it out and make sure all the facts are correct. It’s not like an investigative piece. It’s usually something that comes off a press release, an earnings report, it’s court documents.

“‘I’ll go back and rewrite everything,’  he continued. ‘I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened.'”

Writing for Salon, Laura Miller addressed the 17 year old German author of “Axolotl Roadkill,” Helene Hegemann. Miller wrote: “Hegemann lifted as much as a full page of text from an obscure, independently published novel, “Strobo,” by a blogger known as Airen.”

Miller again: “Count me among those who think that most plagiarism scandals are overblown.” But she didn’t include Hegemann among “most” plagiarists. Miller continued: “The daughter of an avant-garde dramatist, she says she practices ‘intertextuality’ and explains, ‘Very many artists use this technique … by organically including parts in my text, I am entering into a dialogue with the author.'”

Miller goes on… “If Hegemann intended to enter into a dialogue with Airen, she took pains to make it look like a monologue. If she viewed the writing itself as collaborative, she suppressed any urge to share those handsome royalty checks.’ Hegemann is up for a German book award, by the way.

And then there’s Gerald Posner, who borrowed words from the Miami Herald for an article in The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast‘s chief investigative reporter’s excuse was perhaps the nerviest of all. Quoted in Newsweek:  “‘The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer-with two years or more on a project-to what I describe as the ‘warp speed of the net,’ Posner wrote, noting that since June 1, he had published 72 articles with ‘intensive reporting.'”

Plagiarism hits a nerve with me but there are all sorts of people lining up with excuses for wrongdoing from Barry Bonds, who didn’t know there were steroids in the cream he used, to Tiger’s sex addiction which he hopes takes him off the hook for his actions.  What wrongdoings bug you the most or what excuses are most memorable?


3 Responses to “Service of Excuses”

  1. Simon Carr Said:

    I have no truck for plagiarism. I believe it to be far sneakier and certainly less honorable than armed robbery. Indeed I believe it to be a crime which should be punished by the amputation of the offending limb, and if the perpetrator is ambidextrous, both hands. However, an accusation of plagiarism did once help me hugely.

    I was always a rotten student, and throughout my school years I either failed or barely passed every course I ever took. However, as a sophomore in college, I had the good fortune to study under Richard B. Young, the greatest teacher, in a place full of great teachers–that I have come across either there or anywhere.

    Young taught an English literature seminar limited to 10 students. He was brilliant, despotic, caustic, demanding, passionate, and I suspect was always in pain as he had been pretty badly shot up in the Second World War.

    He also never gave a mark higher than “B.” After several weeks, he decided most of his students didn’t really care, and from then on, he broke his class into two seminars requiring twice his time. To my astonishment, I ended up with two others in the “those who cared” seminar, and for the rest of the year, for two hours twice a week, we were exposed to an extraordinary battering by an original, fearless mind. We also had to write essays for him before each class which he would then tear apart with gusto in front of us.

    At one class, he didn’t criticize my paper, but asked me to stay afterward. When we were alone, he handed me my paper back, with an 82 on it, the highest mark he ever gave me. It was a piece analyzing the role the four knights play in T.S. Elliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral.” He then bluntly asked me where I had stolen my work from, saying that I was obviously neither intelligent enough to have made such a profound analysis, nor a sufficiently fluent writer to have been able to express my ideas that well on paper. He further told me that he had been up most of the night trying to find my source and had failed to do so. I told him I wrote the paper and had consulted no source except the poem itself. He didn’t believe me.

    Although I don’t think he ever knew it, Young’s accusation of plagiarism was the greatest of all compliments. It also changed my life. From then on I knew that if I applied myself, I could do decent work.

    An after word:

    Decades later I reread my paper. It wasn’t all that good and probably deserved the 82. I threw it away.

    The year after I took his seminar, Young was fired for not publishing and went on to Smith College where he eventually published and taught for the rest of his life. He died about 20 years ago before I ever got around to thanking him for what he had done for me. For that, I have no excuse.

  2. RCF Said:


    You have so many marvelous questions I always want to answer, then don’t have time and lose track of what I wanted to say…but this one I come across so often in teaching that I have a ready response.

    There is a big difference between a reason and an excuse. Why you could not do your homework is nice to know. But it does not mean that you do not have to do it. Sickness is an excuse for missing class. But it does not excuse you from the learning you are responsible for. So often people think that a good reason equals an excuse from a responsibility. “Ignorance is no excuse in the face of the law” yes. It may be a reason a person made a huge mistake. But it does not excuse them from learning and knowing what they were supposed to know given their position of responsibility or profession. Nobody would use being drunk as an excuse for driving erratically and getting into an accident, but it is a perfectly good reason. A person can beg to be excused for saying something foolish, not knowing what they said. It is up to the listener who was insulted (or whatever) to grant the pardon.


  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    I am so glad you took the time to comment, RCF! What a perfect discussion…reason vs. excuse!

    And what happened to “I did not do my homework. It will be late, but I will hand it in on Friday. I am so sorry I have missed the deadline. It won’t happen again.” Is it the human condition, or that parents beat children who admit to things, or that parents make excuses for their children that we so often fall back on excuses? “I had a bad day” allows you to blow your husband’s head off when you get home?

    Simon, I loved your story. You ARE brilliant, that’s obvious. I wish I had such a story, but nobody ever accused me of brilliant thought and/or writing or of using another person’s text.

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