The Man Who Stares at Other People’s Writing
Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, stands accused of possible plagiarism flowing from an article he wrote in the Guardian.
May 25, 2010 - 12:00 am
Jon Ronson is a noted British journalist, documentarian, and author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was adapted into a film by George Clooney. As far as I can tell from his latest article in the Guardian, he is also prone to using the words and ideas of others without attribution, a habit usually referred to as plagiarism.
I happened upon the article (“Whodunnit?”) by chance and would not have noticed anything untoward had its opening not rung a distant bell. The article deals with criminal profiling and its discontents, in particular a noted scandal of British justice from the 1980s. The opening section, however, which describes the founding of criminal profiling, is clearly lifted without attribution from Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Dangerous Minds,” published by the New Yorker in 2007 — albeit with some minor changes. The most striking similarities appear below.
Both articles begin by recounting the famous “Mad Bomber” case from the 1940s, in which New York City was terrorized for a time by a disgruntled former Con Edison employee with a penchant for explosives. As can be seen from the opening sentence, Gladwell’s is the more elaborately written piece, but Ronson copies it in terms of tone, sentence, and paragraph structure, and the use of quotes:
One day, 70 years ago, a package was left on a windowsill at the Consolidated Edison power plant in New York. It was a bomb, with a note attached: “CON EDISON CROOKS – THIS IS FOR YOU.”
On November 16, 1940, workers at the Consolidated Edison building on West Sixty-fourth Street in Manhattan found a homemade pipe bomb on a windowsill. Attached was a note: “Con Edison crooks, this is for you.”
The similarities become more pronounced as the piece goes on, with Ronson copying Gladwell, at certain points, word for word:
There was, for a start, something overly formal about the wording of his notes. They spoke of “The Con Edison’s dastardly deeds.” He seemed foreign-born.
But there was a stilted quality to the word choice and the phrasing. Con Edison was often referred to as “the Con Edison.” And who still used the expression “dastardly deeds”? F.P. seemed to be foreign-born.
And suffering from an Oedipal complex. He was unmarried, a loner, maybe living with his mother.
F.P. had probably never progressed beyond the Oedipal stage. He was unmarried, a loner. Living with a mother figure.
When describing the psychiatric profile that eventually caught the bomber, Ronson makes use of a truncated version of the same quote that originally appeared in Gladwell’s piece — a dramatic passage from the psychiatrist’s memoirs in which he describes his “vision” of the culprit:
Then Brussel delivered his now legendary coup de grace: “ ‘One more thing,’ I said, my eyes closed tight. I saw the Bomber: impeccably neat, absolutely proper. ‘When you catch him he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit.’
‘Jesus!’ one of the detectives whispered.”
Brussel waited a moment, and then, in a scene that has become legendary among criminal profilers, he made a prediction:
“One more thing.” I closed my eyes because I didn’t want to see their reaction. I saw the Bomber: impeccably neat, absolutely proper. A man who would avoid the newer styles of clothing until long custom had made them conservative. I saw him clearly — much more clearly than the facts really warranted. I knew I was letting my imagination get the better of me, but I couldn’t help it.
“One more thing,” I said, my eyes closed tight. “When you catch him — and I have no doubt you will — he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit.”
“Jesus!” one of the detectives whispered.
I am speculating somewhat, but it seems reasonable to presume that Ronson took the quote directly from Gladwell’s article, shortening and editing it slightly in order to fit his style. This also seems to be the case in regard to his description of the Mad Bomber’s eventual arrest, which is shorter than Gladwell’s but structurally identical and reiterates the final six words with only a slight change in punctuation.
They raided his house at midnight. He opened the door in his pajamas, immediately confessed to being “the mad bomber,” went to get dressed and reappeared wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned.
When he opened the door to the police officers, he said, “I know why you fellows are here. You think I’m the Mad Bomber.” It was midnight, and he was in his pajamas. The police asked that he get dressed. When he returned, his hair was combed into a pompadour and his shoes were newly shined. He was also wearing a double-breasted suit — buttoned.
It is only fair for me to note that I am not an expert on copyright law or the legal definition of plagiarism, but I think that the examples cited above largely speak for themselves. What seems to have happened is not difficult to guess. The most likely explanation is that Ronson, searching for an opening to an otherwise unrelated piece, took the opening of Gladwell’s article, made some edits and cosmetic changes, and pasted it on to the rest of his piece.
Unfortunately, it appears that this is not the first time Ronson has displayed a dubious attitude toward other people’s work. He has been accused of this sort of thing before, once by a former researcher and also by author Jim Schnabel; and from what I have been able to ascertain, the Guardian has a habit of ignoring these accusations. I hope that this will not be the case this time; but thus far, a letter to the paper on this issue has garnered only a one-line response, and Ronson’s article remains available without changes. I do not know for a fact that these previous allegations are true, of course, but given what I have pointed out above, I think they deserve very serious attention.
It isn’t pleasant to accuse people of this sort of thing, and I feel it is incumbent on me to state that plagiarism is often not a malicious act, but can come about for various reasons unrelated to simple sloth and dishonesty. Writing for a living and on a deadline — writing, in other words, when one is sometimes uninspired — is not an easy thing, and the pressures of the job can make people sloppy, desperate, and sometimes simply too frazzled to remember from where they got their ideas. Whatever the reasons behind it, however, plagiarism is still benefiting from the labor of others unfairly, and at the very least, ought to be acknowledged and compensated by the offender and those who publish him.
I hope Ronson and the Guardian find the courage and wherewithal to do so in this case.