I have a great deal of respect for Marvin Kalb. He had a long and illustrious career as a broadcast journalist. Since then, in a variety of roles at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, he has been a formidable champion of journalism excellence.
But he's way off base in the current contretemps over apparent plagiarism by columnist, longtime foreign correspondent and former Washington Times top editor Arnaud de Borchgrave.
The Times is conducting an "internal assessment" of de Borchgrave's work and has deactivated links to his recent columns. After the controversy exploded, he decided to suspend his Times column for three months so he could "finish his memoirs."
De Borchgrave's plagiarism was reported first by Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple and also by Salon's Mariah Blake. The evidence is clear-cut, and even his supporters are pleading nolo contendere.
Nevertheless, in a bizarre e-mail to Politico this week, de Borchgrave proclaimed that he felt "vindicated."
De Borchgrave said he had "been the happy recipient of scores of supporting letters from prominent personalities, ranging from Marvin Kalb to Jim Jones, Zbig Brzezinski, Judge Bill Sessions, who understand that inadvertently dropping quotation marks was not plagiarism. The column I wrote yesterday prompted more favorable responses – including Marvin Kalb – from prominent Washington players."
In case anyone didn't get the message that Kalb was cool with him, de Borchgrave later e-mailed Politico, "If I can pass muster with the dean of American journalism, and scores of other prominent personalities on both sides of the aisle, I can only assume that the nay sayers are not acquainted with all the facts in this case."
So what does Kalb think about the case? In an effort to find out, The Atlantic Wire's John Hudson touched base with The Dean.
"I just feel that reporters who appear to derive a degree of pleasure from attacking Arnaud are reporters who would be wise to check the whole man – to check his entire background before they let him have it," Kalb said. "Because it isn't fair to do it in the way it's been done. In the degree that journalism is an effort to be fair in the presentation of facts, I don't think that's an effort at fairness.
According to Hudson, Kalb "emphasized that de Borchgrave apologized for his mistakes and vowed to never do it again. He also noted that de Borchgrave has had a tremendous career, and helped him personally when he was a young reporter."
Kalb elaborated: "I take allegations of plagiarism very seriously and my record will demonstrate that. The issue is...is Arnaud de Borchgrave a plagiarist? There were one or two examples that were cited that clearly crossed the line. And Arnaud then acknowledged and apologized for it and said he wouldn't do it anymore. Given the fact that Arnaud De Borchgrave has a record of incredible courage under fire as a reporter and a guy who spent decades covering every single diplomatic story that existed – if it comes to a certain point in his life, I believe he's 85, and he makes a mistake, you can be sure once he's called out on it he's not going to do it anymore."
What troubles me about Kalb's position is that it suggests that allegations of plagiarism should be judged in part on the track record of the alleged plagiarist. That's a very dangerous path to pursue.
What possible difference does it make that de Borchgrave has had a tremendous career? So what if he "has a record of incredible courage under fire as a reporter" and "spent decades covering every single diplomatic story that existed..?"
What matters is the behavior. If someone is lifting material from someone else without proper attribution, they should be called to account for it. (And, in fact, far more than "one or two examples" have been cited.)
A lifetime of achievement, no matter how distinguished, doesn't give you a license to steal. Why should de Borchgrave be held to a different standard than, say, Elizabeth Flock, the young Washington Post blogger who resigned in April after a plagiarism incident came to light?
There aren't a huge number of absolutes in the world of journalism. One of them is that you don't use someone else's material without giving proper recognition. And that applies to everybody.