Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson Faces Accusations Of Plagiarism

Feb 7, 2019
Originally published on February 7, 2019 11:51 pm
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We're going to stay with these allegations of plagiarism and factual inaccuracies in Abramson's new book. And for that, I want to bring in Erik Wemple. He writes about the media for The Washington Post. Hey, Eric.

ERIK WEMPLE: Hi. How's it going?

KELLY: All right. Thank you. I wonder what leapt out at you of what we just heard there.

WEMPLE: Well, it appears that she's starting to reckon with this. Last night on Fox News, she had a more defiant sort of approach. That's often the way these things go with the media. There's at first a very strong denial because people are so close to their work. In the prologue or maybe in the acknowledgements, Jill Abramson said she spent three years on this book. It is a thick and very detailed piece of work. I was about to say thorough, but I think I better keep that one off the table.

KELLY: As someone who reads a lot of media memoirs, how does a book like this not have been fact checked rigorously? I mean, how sloppy would this be if these allegations all prove to be true?

WEMPLE: Well, I believe they are true. I mean, if you look at the side by side in the plagiarism allegations, they seem very strong. And I looked at the notes as well. And the notes don't back up the things that she purloined. And they don't...

KELLY: You're talking about source notes, but they were not in the main text of the book.

WEMPLE: That's correct. And even if they had been there, the quotation marks were not there to represent work that she had used from others. So there's really nowhere for her to hide with respect to these allegations.

KELLY: So as you dug into and you've looked at the book and the text, you think these allegations of plagiarism stand up?


KELLY: Beyond honest mistake?

WEMPLE: Well, I mean, they can be a sloppy mistake. They could have been oversight. But they are - to my eyes, they are plagiarism. And I don't use that term lightly. They seem to be sort of concerted plagiarism, which I define as an attempt to, in certain places, to sort of distance the borrowed copy from the original copy with little minor edits but where the string of thought and the sequencing is all the same as in the original work. I feel that's an aggravating or an incriminating circumstance, if you understand what I'm saying.

KELLY: Worth noting for people who don't track the media world closely, Abramson has been a polarizing figure for a long time.

WEMPLE: Well, yes. I mean, her ouster from The New York Times was...

KELLY: She was fired - 2014, I think.

WEMPLE: Yes, that's correct. She was fired in May - right, 2014. It was related mostly to management. This was not an ouster that was because of some journalistic atrocity that she had committed. She's not known as a plagiarist. I am not sure exactly where these passages came from. She does credit an assistant in the book and says that that assistant drafted passages of the book.

Now, it's not clear exactly what passages she's talking about, what chapters she's talking about. But if she had been managing editor or executive editor of The New York Times, would she have allowed such vague sourcing and attribution in a New York Times article? I think not.

KELLY: What do you see as the consequences for media writ large for a journalist with a national platform, former head of the newsroom of The New York Times, to write a book about modern journalism and it maybe turns out that this book has serious flaws?

WEMPLE: Well, the whole book is supported by sort of the weight of Jill Abramson's reputation. She is casting judgments about standards and proper journalism throughout that book. So then to have these very credible allegations of plagiarism snap back, this is a disaster.

KELLY: Problematic for her reputation, but what about the media's wider reputation in this era of fake news and the president of the United States calling the press the enemy of the people?

WEMPLE: Yeah. I think it's really bad. The whole idea behind the promise of someone like Jill Abramson writing a book is that this is Jill Abramson. It represents the work that came off of her keyboard and onto the screen through her journalistic filter. And that is a promise - that's a solemn promise that journalists have to keep. And so it is a substantive real problem for journalists.

KELLY: Erik Wemple. He is a media critic at The Washington Post. He's been speaking to us about Jill Abramson and her controversial new book "Merchants Of Truth." Thank you, Eric.

WEMPLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.