The Accidental Plagiarist

By John Koblin

Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, recently wrote a letter to The New York Times’ executive editor, Bill Keller, about “apparent plagiarism” on the Times’ DealBook blog, in a post by Zachery Kouwe, a 31-year-old business reporter.

The examples laid out by Thomson were pretty clear-cut: Much of the story, which was about a lawsuit involving Bernie Madoff’s family, was obviously lifted from a Journal piece published a few hours before the Times piece.

Shortly thereafter, Times editors notified Kouwe of their findings. “I was in complete shock,” said Kouwe in an interview with The Observer. “Then I started worrying and started thinking, how the fuck did this happen?”

Times editors were asking themselves the same thing. Almost immediately, they dispatched a team to study Kouwe’s work. Within a day, they found half a dozen examples of passages lifted from other news sources. On Feb. 14, an editor’s note was published on the Times’ website admitting that Kouwe had indeed lifted lines from a variety of sources, including the Journal and Reuters. 

By Feb. 16, Kouwe had resigned.

“We have a zero tolerance policy for unethical journalism,” Keller wrote in an e-mail to The Observer. “Plagiarism is unethical journalism.”

“I was as surprised as anyone that this was occurring,” Kouwe said, referring to the revelation that he had plagiarized. “I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper and all that stuff. As soon as I saw, I guess, like six examples, I said to myself, ‘Man what an idiot. What I was thinking?’”

Kouwe says he has never fabricated a story, nor has he knowingly plagiarized. “Basically, there was a minor news story and I thought we needed to have a presence for it on the blog,” he said, referring to DealBook. “In the essence of speed, I’ll look at various wire services and throw it into our back-end publishing system, which is WordPress, and then I’ll go and report it out and make sure all the facts are correct. It’s not like an investigative piece. It’s usually something that comes off a press release, an earnings report, it’s court documents.”

“I’ll go back and rewrite everything,” he continued. “I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened.”

In one story, published on Dec. 8 on the front page of The Times’ business section, Kouwe wrote, “In the face of increasing loan repurchases and a huge, undisclosed backlog of repurchase demands, the SEC said, Mr. Kenneally, with Ms. Dodge’s knowledge, made changes to New Century’s accounting for loan repurchases in both the second and third quarters of 2006.” That line is copied nearly verbatim from a SEC press release.

On Nov. 18, Kouwe wrote: “Employment in the securities industry in New York City fell by 28,300 jobs since its peak in November 2007, the comptroller said. The report predicts, however, that job losses in the sector are unlikely to exceed 35,000 by the end of the year, a much smaller number than previously forecast.”

The same sentences had already appeared, almost word for word, in a piece in the Journal.

(The article that Thomson refers to in his letter is from Feb. 5.)

“There’s no excuse for this,” Kouwe said. “I understand the seriousness of it. Even if it was inadvertent, that doesn’t make it any less serious.”

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