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You Can't Plagiarize Your Own Talking Points

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Here's today's installment of stupid and stupider from the campaign.

I'm a plagiarism hard-liner, but the hunt for offenders in this election cycle by Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski is just silly. So today we get (via Weigel) Kaczynski and his colleague Ilan Ben-Meir calling out the Republican Senate candidate in Iowa, Joni Ernst, for sending op-eds to local papers "large portions" of which "appear to have been copied word-for-word from templates sent as guidelines to Republican members of the Iowa Senate."

Yes, that's right: Ernst (allegedly) cribbed from Republican talking points.

There's nothing unethical about that. It's what talking points are for! it. Yes, it was wrong for Joe Biden, in his aborted 1988 presidential run, to copy a speech, which made him describe someone else's family experience as his own. But to use party-authored boilerplate to praise tax cuts and balanced budgets is utterly reasonable.

And Buzzfeed's accusation isn't nearly as silly as the response from Republicans, who alleged misdeeds by Ernst's Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley:

Republicans pointed out that two weeks after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced the "Hire Now Tax Credit Act Of 2010," Braley introduced the "Back to Work Act of 2010" in the House. Braley's bill uses identical language to the Reid-Hatch bill. He has cited his introduction of the bill during his campaign for Senate.

Seriously? Using the same bill text is a form of plagiarism? I'd even be fine with using the word "authored" to describe a senator who introduced an identical version of a House bill, but all Braley said is that he introduced the measure. Quick review: For any bill to advance to the White House, identical versions must pass each chamber of Congress. So it makes sense to introduce identical bills in the first place.

Let's save the accusations of malfeasance for actual misbehavior, please.

  1. I live in fear of accidentally lifting something. This wasn't a problem with scholarly work, where I suppose it's possible to accidentally copy something, but it generally doesn't happen. But as a blogger I read a ton of stuff, and, yeah, I worry that some phrase will get stuck in my head that belongs to someone else. I don't think it's happened to me, but it could. All any of us can do is to try to be constantly aware of the danger.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net