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Coulter: Plagio, ergo sum?

As of this writing, the mainstream media still hasn't picked up on the latest credibility controversy surrounding conservative columnist Ann Coulter--that several chunks of her June 29 column appear to be lifted from sources as much as 20 years old.

The story has been bounding through the political blogosphere since mid-July. And the similarities between Coulter's column and previously published works are pretty damning. Coulter's column, released nationally on Wednesday, is a Saturday staple of the Arizona Daily Star's opinion page.

Coulter's column, titled "Thou Shalt Not Commit Religion," was her reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision banning displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses. The column's disputed text involves descriptions of federally funded art projects that conservative religious groups called "obscene art." Those exhibits were the jumping-off point for the "Deo et Patria" crowd's failed effort to convince Congress to yank all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Before we go on, here's a quick look at plagiarism and how it works. Plagiarism derives from a Latin verb, which the Romans swiped from the Greeks, that means both "to kidnap" and "to plunder." Which makes sense; dragging conquered people into slavery was part of plundering conquered cities.

Plagiarism is stealing someone else's intellectual, artistic or inventive work and presenting it as your original work. The rules are simple: Name the source and quote the work directly, or name the source and paraphrase the text in a way that presents the source's idea without substantially repeating the language.

The Coulter chase began July 1 when a blogger called The Rude Pundit (rudepundit.blogspot.com) compared four unattributed comments in Coulter's column to text from the December 1993 edition of a now-defunct Web magazine, The Flummery Digest. (If the publication is deceased, is it plagiarism or grave-robbing?) Here's one example Rude Pundit provided:

"From Ann Coulter, talking about what taxpayers have funded: 'A photo of a newborn infant with its mouth open titled to suggest the infant was available for oral sex.'

"From The Flummery Digest: 'The title of a photo of a newborn infant with its mouth open suggested that the infant was available for oral sex.'"

The Raw Story (www.rawstory.com), an online "alternative news nexus," dug around further. In a July 20 story titled "Coulter Caught Cribbing From Conservative Magazines," Raw Story presented another half-dozen questionable paragraphs--two from a Jan. 24, 1995 column in the Boston Globe and four from various issues of an MIT-based magazine, Counterpoint.

Should we be surprised? Not really. The conservative group CoulterWatch (www.coulterwatch.com) offers strong evidence that portions of Coulter's book, High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton, were lifted from articles and research by a former Coulter colleague--who she since has denied ever knowing--at Human Events magazine.

We sent a note last week to Greg Melvin, Coulter's handler at Universal Press Syndicate, asking if he or she or Universal Press had any comments on the current controversy. No answer.

As we saw in April with a pair of columns about the guys who lobbed pies at her at the University of Arizona last fall, Coulter doesn't have a whole lot of respect for the truth. She took a few cheap shots at the Star's courts reporter and responded with rudeness to editorial page editor Dennis Joyce's efforts to square the Star's reporting with the statements in her column.

Joyce said at the time that the editorial board discussed canceling her column but decided to keep an eye on things a while longer, which sounded to me a little like putting an employee on probation.

It will be interesting to see what Universal Press, the Star and the other newspapers that buy Coulter's column do about this, assuming anyone in the mainstream looks into the June 29 plagiarism allegations.


A TABOO FALLS

Thus spake the Arizona Daily Star in its front-page centerpiece July 23 on the relentless days of heat: "Las Vegas hit 117 degrees Tuesday, tying the all-time record."

The phrase "all-time record" provoked one each: double take, shudder and wince. Star newsroom lore holds that Michael E. Pulitzer banned the phrase from the paper's pages at some point during his reign as editor/publisher. True, it's a Lee Enterprises paper today, but it's still the Star, and memories of old taboos are hard to shake.

And when the thinking behind it makes sense, it sticks like a tar baby.

"All-time record" is a nonsense phrase that should not only be banned from newspapers, but also yanked entirely out of the English language.

As I learned one night from a couple of the older souls on the Star's sports copy desk, Pulitzer believed "all-time" is synonymous with the infinite future, if not eternity altogether. In his way of thinking, an "all-time record" is one that will never be broken.

The problem with factoids, as the Vegas line illustrates, is that a morsel sometimes is worse than skipping a meal.

The reader was left to wonder if 117 was a record for the date, or the hottest temperature in recorded history. Wonder no more, gentle reader. According to the National Weather Service, this year is the second time in recorded history Las Vegas' temp topped out at 117 degrees. The first was July 24, 1942.


WATCHING LANGUAGE

Saturday, July 30's Star story on the bust at a meth "super lab" in Arivaca was an interesting read, but it left us with a couple of questions.

What does "next door" (to a fire station) mean? Meth labs have a nasty smell, and it's worth wondering if and when the folks at the fire house noticed the odor.

Prepositions with multiple objects are sometimes problematic. The story says the feds seized "more than 3 tons of marijuana, firearms and cash." Was the whole haul 6,000 pounds, or did the feds grab firearms, cash and 3 tons of marijuana?

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