James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Yes we can steal: We are the ones we’ve been plagiarizing

Posted by James McPherson on November 18, 2008

One of the drawbacks of an Internet world for teachers and historians like myself is how easy plagiarism is to commit–even accidentally, for someone who gathers lots of information and fails to adequately keep track of it all, thanks to the easy of copying and pasting.

Even more troubling is how little theft seems to matter to many of those who commit it, and the difficulty in explaining to students why it is wrong. Check out PlagiarismToday for some great insights on the subject.

Plagiarism scandals have embarrassed reporters (costing some their jobs) and historians and once helped end Joe Biden’s presidential bid. During his campaign, Barack Obama drew fire for using the words of Deval Patrick. Yet Obama’s two favorite phrases: “Yes we can” and “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” both orginated with others. Writing a Washington Post blog back in February, Garance Franke-Ruta traced at least part of the lineage of both phrases.

For me, the blog post also raises another question: At what point does something become “common knowledge”? “A penny saved is a penny earned” is a phrase that Congress and Americans in general seem to have forgotten, but no one using it would be expected to know where it came from. Nor did most folks question the origin of “lipstick on a pig,” even if they questioned its use.

And while I knew that evangelical Sojourners leader Jim Wallis used the phrase in his book God’s Politics and in speeches (attributing the phrase to a young activist), until I read Franke-Ruta’s article I had no idea how common it had become–or its connection to a 2004 Jane Fonda speech. The Internet continues to make my job both easier and more difficult.

Just for fun, here’s will.i.am’s pro-Obama anthem version of “We are the Ones,” with lots of celebrity faces:

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One Response to “Yes we can steal: We are the ones we’ve been plagiarizing”

  1. Joy said

    A related post on Media Shift: http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2008/11/canadian-court-rules-linking-to-libel-isnt-necessarily-libel318.html

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