In the summer of 2012, just days before a certain columnist was found to have plagiarized from The New Yorker, a staff writer at the prominent magazine itself resigned in the wake of a widespread plagiarism scandal. The journalist, famous for pop-science works that generated scathing reviews, had been using unattributed quotations taken from other people’s interviews. He had copied-and-pasted from his peers. Generally, he had faked his credentials as an original researcher and thinker.
The New Yorker itself had a doozy on its hands. The scandal had tarred the magazine’s famed fact-checking department, despite claims that its procedure was “geared toward print, not the Web.” Editor-in-chief David Remnick was embarrassed. He’d initially kept the writer on board, distinguishing one bout of self-plagiarism from the more serious offense of “appropriating other people’s work.” Now, his magazine was losing a star that had been groomed as “Malcolm Gladwell 2.0.”
That star, of course, was Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer’s editor would later say, “I think the one good thing that will come out of it is making it very clear is that this is unacceptable… Everybody knows that they can’t do this.” But what if this wasn’t an isolated incident? What if The New Yorker had missed a far bigger star guilty of the same offenses? What if the plagiarist in question…was Malcolm Gladwell 1.0? And what if we hired Keith Morrison to narrate this post?
BLINK: THE POWER OF WRITING WITHOUT ATTRIBUTING
A writer for the New Yorker for almost two decades, Malcolm Gladwell has made a name for himself peddling social theories that attempt to explain our world in simple-to-understand and incorrect ways. Has your boss ever sat you down to explain who in the office is a Connector or a Maven? Have you heard Macklemore rap about the “10,000 hour rule,” which professes that you can become an expert at something by logging that much practice? You can thank Malcolm Gladwell.
Plenty of criticism has been written about Gladwell’s theories, usually along the lines of Gladwell being guilty of “pseudo-profundity.” The 10,000 hour rule in 2008’s Outliers? Bunk. The idea in David and Goliath that maybe you should wish dyslexia on your child for a competitive edge? Zero proof. Virtually every one of Gladwell’s ridiculously popular books has been met with criticism for playing fast and loose with the facts and using anecdotes as evidence of some larger truth. Other criticisms have drilled down extensively on Gladwell’s professional origins as a unabashedly corporate-friendly journalist who has defended everything from tobacco companies to performance-enhancing drugs.
But few have questioned the originality of Gladwell’s work in The New Yorker. After reviewing a very small sample of his articles from the last few years, we’ve found a few that lifted quotes and other material without attribution. One column in particular appears to have lifted all of its material on a historic civil rights protest from one book written 40 years earlier.
We wondered how Gladwell, with a less than stellar reputation for accuracy, managed to operate at the New Yorker. As it turned out, he usually didn’t – at least not physically. A 2008 New York profile described Gladwell’s work arrangement:
A couple of miles north in Times Square are Gladwell’s editors at The New Yorker, who don’t see him in the office very often—owing to his self-professed “aversion to midtown”—but who grant him a license to write about whatever he chooses and accommodate him with couriers to pick up his fact-checking materials, lest he be forced to overcome that aversion.
These couriers must have been stuck in traffic a year earlier when Gladwell wrote an article incorrectly claiming that the authors of “The Bell Curve” had called for Americans with low I.Q.s to be “sequestered in a ‘high-tech’ version of an Indian reservation.” The New Yorker was forced to append the article with a correction: “In fact, [the authors] deplored the prospect of such ‘custodialism’ and recommended that steps be taken to avert it.” How had it happened? As Remnick told Upstart, “Malcolm thought he was sure of what it said, and we went with it, and we were wrong, and we corrected it.” But nonetheless, he claimed, “Malcolm doesn’t have a quote-unquote problem with the checking department.”
Remnick might want to revisit with his fact checkers about that. The articles excerpted below were all published in the last four years.
GLADWELL COPIES AN AUTHOR’S XEROX ANECDOTE AND WE TAKE THE HIGH ROAD ON MAKING A PUN ABOUT IT
In May 2011, Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker on the “Creation Myth,” the supposed legend behind a young Steve Jobs’ trip to Xerox’s PARC facility. According to legend, Jobs’ encounter with the “Alto,” an early version of the PC, eventually led to the creation of the Macintosh. In one passage, Gladwell quotes Jobs as offering Xerox 100,000 shares of Apple for $1M if the company would “open its kimono,” or allow him to see their research center. In another, Gladwell quotes Xerox engineer Larry Tesler, who recalled seeing Steve Jobs react excitedly to the Alto’s features.
Gladwell cites just four sources in “Creation Myth.” The first is Dima Adamsky’s “The Culture of Military Innovation”; second, Michael Hiltzik’s book on Xerox’s PARC entitled “Dealers of Lightning”; third, Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander’s “Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer”; and finally, Keith Richards’ 2011 memoir, “Life.” Only “Dealers” and “Fumbling” discuss PARC, Jobs, and Larry Tesler. Neither includes the “kimono” quote or Tesler’s quote about Jobs’ reaction to Alto.
So, if you read Gladwell’s article—and noted how “Tesler recalled” the story of Jobs’ reaction to no one in particular—you’d naturally assume that Gladwell had interviewed Tesler himself. He didn’t. Rather, the quotes he uses are from interviews conducted by writer and Steve Jobs expert Jeffrey S. Young.
Checking this is easy: Do a Google Books search for portions of Tesler’s speech quoted in the Gladwell article, restricting your hits to before May of 2011. You’ll come up with four hits: Young’s 1988 biography of Jobs titled “Steve Jobs,” a compilation of essays on Apple that includes excerpts from Young’s biography (the text of which can be found here), Young’s 1998 “Forbes Greatest Technology Stories,” and Young’s 2005 biography of Jobs, titled “iCon.” All of these sources include both the “kimono” quote and Tesler’s exact quotes about Jobs coming to PARC in 1979. Now, take a look at the side-by-side picture pitting Gladwell’s 2011 “Creation Myth” against Young’s 1988 “Steve Jobs” (we’ve also included Young’s sourcing information to hit home the point that, yes, he is the one who got those quotes). What do you see?
What about other authors telling the Xerox story? When Walter Isaacson wrote his seminal biography on Jobs (released in October 2011 – that is, six months after Gladwell wrote “Creation Myth”), he also used the “kimono” quote. Unlike Gladwell, Isaacson used a citation – pages 170-172 of Young’s 1988 Jobs biography. But at the time of Gladwell’s piece, Young was the only author using either Tesler’s quotes or the “kimono” line. The quotes had not “lost their authorship” by means of wide dissemination. Gladwell erred in not citing Young.
GLADWELL RAILROADS THE AUTHOR OF AN ARTICLE ON AN 19TH CENTURY INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECT
Last year’s “The Gift of Doubt” was a typical Gladwellian review of Jeremy Adelman’s “Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman,” a biography of the famed economist. Gladwell opens the piece with three paragraphs on the construction of the Troy-Greenfield railroad in the mid-1800’s. They contain a number of incredibly specific facts about the obscure New England infrastructure project: descriptions of the Hoosac Mountain it would tunnel through; quotes from engineers, the president of Amherst, and the project’s promoters; the exact size of the cost-overrun; and the positive impact of the project on regional industry. Gladwell then notes that one of Hirschmann’s essays, “The Principle of the Hiding Hand,” “drew on an account of the Troy-Greenfield ‘folly,’ and then presented an even more elaborate series of paradoxes.” He then segues into a discussion of Hirschmann’s economic thinking, and never mentions the railroad again.
Where did Gladwell get all of that information on the Troy-Greenfield railroad? Before his article was published, the specific information he cited couldn’t be found using a wide array of Google or other publically-available database searches. Considering Gladwell is writing a book review here, a reader would likely assume that Gladwell is drawing on a description in Adelman’s biography. But no mention of the railroad appears in “Worldly Philosopher,” let alone any of the details or quotes in Gladwell’s write-up. The next likely source would be the actual 1967 Hirschmann essay that Gladwell says “drew on an account” of the railroad construction. But again, the source has no information on the railroad.
What Gladwell is referring to is a passing mention of economic historian John Sawyer in Hirschmann’s “Hiding Hand” essay. All Hirschmann says is that Sawyer “looked at development projects that were undertaken in the first half of the 19th century in the United States.” A footnote indicates the analysis discussed is Sawyer’s 1952 article, “Entrepreneurial Error and Economic Growth” (which itself discusses a 1947 piece by Edward C. Kirkland on the construction Troy-Greenfield railroad). Sawyer’s article is not widely available online, but we managed to obtain a copy of it. Look at what happens when you compare the content of Sawyer’s piece to Gladwell’s:
There’s no question that Gladwell lifted every piece of information on the Troy-Greenfield railroad from Sawyer. There’s no question that Gladwell didn’t mention either Sawyer (or Kirkland) in his piece. The only question is whether or not The New Yorker is willing to give its star writer “the Gift of Doubt” when it comes to his appropriation of other’s work. (“The Gift of Doubt,” if you’ll recall, is the name of the article in question here—making that a play on words. Scoreboard.)
GLADWELL’S WRITING ON THE 1960 GREENSBORO SIT-INS IS LIFTED ENTIRELY FROM A 40 YEAR OLD BOOK
In 2004, Gladwell wrote an article on the extremes of the anti-plagiarism crowd, complaining that “we have somehow decided that copying is never acceptable.” But even then, he acknowledged that there were points where copying goes too far:
“Borrowing crosses the line when it is used for a derivative work. It’s one thing if you’re writing a history of the Kennedys, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, and borrow, without attribution, from another history of the Kennedys.”
By those standards, Gladwell himself has crossed the line. In his 2010 New Yorker column “Small Change,” Gladwell took a skeptical look at the use of social media as a tool for activists, discussing the often over-hyped impact of Facebook and Twitter’s effects on protests around the world. He drew parallels throughout the piece to the civil rights movement, mostly by recounting the story of the historic 1960 Greensboro sit-ins, when four black college students began a protest at Woolworth’s over its whites-only lunch counter.
Whereas the previous examples may have been limited in scope, the entirety of Gladwell’s description of the Greensboro sit-ins in his column—including quotes, descriptions of the Woolworth’s, and the sequence of events—are lifted from Miles Wolff’s authoritative but obscure 1970 book, Lunch at the Five and Ten. While the sit-in itself is a milestone in the American civil rights movement, there are no books or articles outside of Wolff’s work that give such a detailed account of its history. Only two sources explicitly used by Gladwell in “Small Change” note the Greensboro sit-ins – Aldon D. Morris’s The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement and a Michael Walzer essay in Dissent titled “a cup of coffee and a seat.” Both do so briefly, and neither includes any of the fine-grain details mentioned by Gladwell. Walzer’s comes the closest, opening similarly to Gladwell. “Late in the afternoon of Monday, February 1, four freshman…” But the similarities stop there – no quotes about “the wrecking crew,” or intimate descriptions of how the four men knew each other, etc. That’s because Lunch at the Five and Ten was, according to the 1990 edition’s introduction, “based on talks with both the black actors in this drama and the whites who became involved in responding to the students’ challenge.” Wolff’s book is the only source that includes all (or, in some instances, any) of the details of the Greensboro sit-in that Gladwell uses in “Small Change.”
We double-checked the print versions of The New Yorker to check if the online edition omitted any attributions or citations. It doesn’t. Gladwell again makes no mention of the author or his book despite building an entire column around it.
Below are the side-by-side comparisons of all Greensboro-related passages from the print edition of Gladwell’s article (in order) and the relevant passages from Wolff’s book.
WHAT THE DOG STOLE: AND OTHER BOGUS EXCUSES FOR PLAGIARISM
How could The New Yorker’s fact-checking department fail catch all this? How could an editor see the detail in Gladwell’s descriptions and not ask for backup? There are only two plausible answers here. The first is this: Gladwell may have said that he was describing well-documented events and that the quotes and details had “escaped their source.” Indeed, as reported by the Columbia Journalism Review’s Edirin Oputu, the fact-checking director at The New Yorker, Peter Canby, has used this exact defense in the past.
This past April, a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert quoted the following from chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, without attribution:
“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”
The quote, Oputu noted, had originally appeared in a 1986 New Yorker piece by Paul Brodeur. “The New Yorker,” she wrote, “had effectively plagiarized itself.” In response, Canby said that the quote was “so widely used without attribution that it has effectively escaped its authorship.”
But that defense simply doesn’t pass the sniff test here. Almost none of the quotes – not those from Tesler or Jobs, or those from the Troy-Greenfield railroad promoters, or those of the participants in the Greensboro sit-ins – have reached escape velocity and broken free from the need for attribution. It’s almost impossible to find any of them before they appeared in Gladwell’s articles. And it’s not just the quotes that haven’t escaped their original, obscure sources – the vast majority of the details used by Gladwell haven’t, either.
So is this on The New Yorker’s factcheckers? As former New Yorker factchecker Jon Swan wrote in reply to the Rowland incident, “surely the checker is not alone at fault for this breach of journalistic ethics. Editor and author are involved in the process. Did the editor ask for verification? Did the author know where the quote had originated?” In this case, probably not. As we’ve seen demonstrated by Fareed Zakaria, as well as the initial protection of both Lehrer and BuzzFeed’s “deeply original” Benny Johnson, sometimes an outlet’s superstar gets a little more leeway.
DAVID AND UNGOLIANT: UNTANGLING MELKOR GLADWELL’S WEB OF DECEIT
In 2012 when the New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer was found to be self-plagiarizing in the magazine by re-using his own previously published work, Remnick called his actions “wrong and foolish” but kept Lehrer on board, distinguishing the self-plagiarism from “making things up or appropriating other people’s work.”
Gladwell, on the other hand, defended Lehrer—even after bloggers pointed out that his own work appeared to have been lifted by Lehrer as well. He wrote:
“If Lehrer is plagiarizing me, by quoting the same quote I quoted, then I am plagiarizing the person who used that quote before me, and that person is plagiarizing the person who quoted it before them, and so on and so forth, and we have a daisy chain of ‘plagiarizing’ going back forty years and plagiarism, as a ethical concept, has ceased to mean anything at all.”
We’d ask if Remnick and Gladwell feel the same way about the work lifted in this post. It’s true that Gladwell hasn’t been shy about welcoming Lehrer back to blogging. But then again, given the examples we’ve listed, it’s possible that Gladwell may have just been doing some CYA.
Edited, as always, for typos.