The Billings Outpost

Plagiarism allegations in Congress: 2 views

Sen. Walsh should resign right now

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

Somebody should step up and defend Sen. John Walsh from charges that the plagiarized an Army War College paper, I suppose, but it won’t be me. The senator should resign.

The New York Times printed persuasive evidence last week that Sen. Walsh, who is facing Steve Daines for a U.S. Senate seat this fall, plagiarized large portions of a 14-page paper he wrote en route to a master’s degree. Sen. Walsh denies that he intentionally did anything wrong, a claim that becomes more dubious the closer one looks at it.

I ride into this debate on two high horses: In addition to my years as a newspaper hack, I also have taught composition to a few truckloads of bright young college students. In both academia and journalism, the crime of plagiarism is the occupational equivalent of a triple homicide.

Good reporters, some with national reputations, have lost their careers for lifting stories from unattributed sources. Gifted students, including some of my own, have wound up with failing grades for failing to write their own work.

This is, of course, the golden age for plagiarism. When I was in graduate school, plagiarism required writing out passages by hand at the library, then laboriously retyping them on the manual Olympia typewriter I still keep in a closet. It was easier just to make up something out of your own head.

Now students can steal papers with a couple of computer clicks. For some, the temptation is overpowering.

But this also is the golden age for detecting plagiarism. When I catch students at it, I usually do so by entering a suspect phrase into Google. Plagiarized stuff usually shows up in the first two or three links that Google returns.

Now I warn students, if you are going to steal other people’s work, at least don’t grab whatever shows up on the first page of Google. Don’t compound dishonesty with stupidity.

Student plagiarism generally falls into two categories: misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors describe cases where student work is ineptly paraphrased or poorly sourced, but where there is no real intention to deceive. Felonies are cases when students just copy and paste whole blocks of text off the internet and pretend it is their own. You don’t have to take a raft of college courses to know that isn’t right.

Arguably, in some fields, plagiarism itself is a misdemeanor, such as folk music and politics. Bob Dylan notoriously borrowed ideas, tunes and even lyrics from hundreds of uncredited sources. But whatever he did still came out sounding like Dylan.

When supporters of Texas politician Tom “The Hammer” DeLay borrowed portions of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer,” Seeger laughed it off. Although his politics and DeLay’s could not have been more different, Seeger recognized that folk songs are part of the public conversation, ripe for pilfering.

When Joe Biden was caught plagiarizing not only speeches but part of his autobiography from a British politician, he was laughed out of the 1988 presidential campaign. But he still has a pretty good job. Similarly, Sen. Rand Paul has survived plagiarism allegations with barely a whiff of scandal.

Nobody expects politicians to do all of their own thinking. They pay people to make up speeches and quotations for them every day.

But Sen. Walsh doesn’t have an excuse. He was no bright-eyed freshman and he wasn’t on the campaign trail when he plagiarized. Some of his plagiarized passages do sound like misdemeanors. For example, he closely paraphrased sources that he also footnoted. Felonious students don’t steal stuff, then credit the source they stole it from.

But Sen. Walsh also committed felonies in his paper: whole passages, including policy recommendations, lifted from other sources without attribution at all.

Excuses that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder don’t fly. He wrote that paper in 2007. Are we to believe that Sen. Walsh was so traumatized seven years ago that he couldn’t follow basic ethical rules, yet so fully recovered today that he can be entrusted with a job in which temptations to break ethical rules arise every day? Perhaps, but I want to see a doctor’s note.

And if he has recovered, has it never occurred to him that he needs to confess to the Army War College that, in an attack of nihilistic despair, he violated the college’s clear ethical rules and now wishes to make amends?

Some people argue that even academic plagiarism is no big deal. An Associated Press article quoted one veteran who said that anybody who says he didn’t cheat on college papers is lying.

Well, this veteran says he didn’t cheat on college papers. You calling me a liar?

Many students do cheat, of course, and lots of them get away with it. But that doesn’t mean we should elect them to Congress.

This isn’t easy to write, because Sen. Walsh has given encouraging signs in his brief tenure that he knows how to walk the narrow line between right and left that Sen. Max Baucus trod so successfully for so many years. Moreover, his resignation probably would guarantee the election of Rep. Daines, whose policies may be his worst felony.

But Sen. Walsh needs to go, right now, before it’s too late to be replaced on the ballot and even before the college has completed its review of charges against him. He needs to go not because he has behaved badly or even because he has handled this scandal so ineptly. He needs to go because Montanans deserve a chance to vote for someone whose ethical standards would not shame a college freshman.

 

Who gets credit for finding theft?

By T.J. GILLES - For The Outpost

If someone, someday is writing a research paper on Montana´s 2014 U.S. Senate race, let´s hope the scholar follows all the rules of citations, quotations and footnotes.

And let´s hope the scholar can drag it out for more than 14 pages.

Fourteen pages!  That´s the length  (much of it stolen verbatim) of John Walsh´s 2007 master´s (gasp) degree paper at the Army War College. The War College said it would investigate, although how that horse got out of the academic barn in the first place might be an subject worth investigating.

No one had yet called for an investigation of the War College´s accreditation or apparent academic laxity. Plagiarism (stealing from another´s work without giving credit) is one thing. But requiring a mere 14-page report (11,000 words or so, by my guesstimate) for a master´s thesis should have us all lining up at the admissions office.

The bar was set pretty low. But Col. Walsh saw fit to use a springboard anyway. As the late Billings and Rhode Island folklorist and comedian Phil Wharton used to say: “That’s like pickpocketing midgets – How could he stoop so low?”

A lot of Mr. Walsh´s purloined passages came from a 1988 article by Sean M. Lynn-Jones at Harvard´s John F. Kennedy School of Government. That´s the JFK School, not the Edward M. Kennedy school, as Teddy was tossed out of Harvard for two years for hiring someone to take his Spanish test for him (Wikipedia).

Before returning to Harvard Yard, Teddy spent two years in the U.S. Army in Europe during the Korean War, eventually being “catapulted” to the rank of private first class (Woody Allen, “Bananas”).

Mr. Lynn-Jones, a Democrat, said plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, and hoped Sen. Walsh can ride out the plagiarism storm, following in the footsteps of Sen. Rand Paul and current Vice President Joe Biden.

A  largely unattributed story under the byline of New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin included a handy sidebar of Mr. Walsh´s mini-thesis (online of course) with shaded-in areas of the paper color-coded to indicate from which published source they were stolen. 

Mr. Martin´s color-coded analysis of the shady (and shaded) paper cam be found here: www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/23/us/politics/john-walsh-final-paper-plagiarism.html?_r=0

Ah, the old copy-paste.

As a Vietnam-era veteran (of an academic deferment) before the Computer Age, I typed many a term paper for my colleagues at a buck a page. For five bucks a page, I´d write the whole paper for them – including proper attribution, footnotes and bibliography. Pretty simple: Tell me the length, the professor, the subject and which style guide the prof was using. Pay. Wait.

But Sen. Walsh´s tale, picked up by Lee Newspapers’ Montana Reporter Mike Dennison on the same day as the Times expose, certainly leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

I want to know how many credits then-Col. Walsh received - and what grade he received.

And the Times did not say who leaked the story, but as thorough as it was it bears all earmarks of what now is called opposition research. That´s what the Center for Public Integrity in 2008 called “the lowest form of life in the campaign business.” Kind of like pick-pocketing midgets.

Foremost among “the usual suspects” (“Casablanca,” 1943) is America Rising, a Republican organization formed in 2013 to fight fire with fire.

After all, the Democratic Party´s dirty trick subcontractor, American Bridge, broadcast Presidential candidate Mitt Romney´s “corporations are people” mantra as well as his secretly recorded comments about Democratic supporters all being welfare moms, etc.

Both these groups now hound opposing candidates, scouring public records, votes and statements, looking up criminal associations, past and current romances, school records, treatment of family pets – you name it.

And sending out people with video cameras and tape recorders to troll (both uses of the word come into play here) for gaffes, lies or stupidity.

In one Dennison article, a spokesman for American Bridge said both factions would spend up to $40 million during this off-year election.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court´s Citizens United decision, both factions can have unlimited, unreported contributions. Corporations may indeed be people, but they are almost super-human.

At the time of his academic theft, Col. Walsh was in charge of Montana´s National Guard. Although passed over for promotion to general, he was nonetheless chosen as Steve Bullock´s running mate for lieutenant governor.

Following Mr. Bullock´s election, the former colonel served admirably as Montana’s second banana, appearing in parades, ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the occasional funeral or memorial service when the governor was indisposed.

When Montana´s senior senator, Max Baucus, announced that he wouldn´t run for reelection last year, Mr. Walsh was one of several Democrats announcing his candidacy for the 2014 election.

After the Senate unanimously approved Mr. Baucus’ appointment as ambassador to formerly red China in February, Mr. Bullock appointed Mr. Walsh to the Senate.

The way it looks now, his may be one of the shortest Senate tenures on record.

Mr. Lynn-Jones says that his 1998 report, although one of the most oft-used sources in the Harvard online library, is pretty much out-of-date. It was a case for spreading democracy through example, and U.S. incursions in Iraq and elsewhere, he says, have pretty much given democracy a bad name throughout that troubled region.

And it´s notable that in the cat-and-mouse, wolf-and-sheepdog world of academics, there has been a growth of computer software to detect academic and intellectual hijacking.

David Parker, Montana State University´s oft-quoted political science professor, told Lee he uses Turnitin on his papers. There´s iThenicate, iParadigms LC, Plagiarism.org – all coming out of university budgets to electrify the academic fence.

They have some 37 million published academic works from which to search. Dr. Parker said Mr. Walsh´s paper is almost 80 percent stolen, which – had Dr. Parker been doing the grading and running the stolen words through such a grinder – would have resulted in an “F” and probably expulsion.

Since we hold sophomore political-science students at land-grant colleges in Montana to higher standards than we do U.S. senators, don´t expect any censure from fellow solons.

Well behind in the polls even before the academic revelations, perhaps Mr. Walsh should follow the lead of former Costa Rican presidential candidate Johnny Araya.

After finishing second in a 13-horse race on Groundhog Day with a tad over 20 percent of the vote, the former San Jose mayor qualified for a two-man run-off.

But Mr. Araya quit the race, closed his party´s campaign offices and spent the rest of the campaign soaking up solar rays on the beaches of the country´s northwest.

After all, Guanacaste and Nicoya Peninsula are celebrating the 190th anniversary of their secession from Nicaragua and annexation by Costa Rica – according to La Nacion newspaper and Channel 7 TV (Teletica).

SIDEBAR

 For the reader who hasn´t been in school since the days of chalk and slate blackboards and manual typewriters, here’s how modern academics work:

Each professor may have a choice in what “style” is to be followed for citations, footnotes, bibliography. Among the choices: Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association and Chicago Style or its post-modern version by Kate L. Turabian (aka “the Turabian”). 

The student should run the work through any number of spelling and grammar checks to eliminate freshman mistakes and tautology.

A student might even run the whole deal through writing programs such as the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index or the Gunning Fog Index. These formulate indicate grade level of the material and use such factor as the number of multiple-syllable words.

In the case of academics, the worse (higher) the index, the more suited it is to the academic audience.

The student probably will hand in a disk or flash-drive copy of the work so the professor can then run it through software programs to detect plagiarism.

Unless, apparently, the professor is employed by the graduate school at the U.S. War College.

 

Last Updated on Saturday, 02 August 2014 10:46

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