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The Man Who Stares at Other People's Writing

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.