As a veteran of a dozen years in the daily newspaper business, I’m mindful that the Internet has changed the rules of journalism, but somebody will need to help me understand this latest twist.
Earlier this week, my Google News alert pinged me that I had been named by Ian Fletcher in the Huffington Post. In a July 21 column titled “Words Can’t Magic Away the Trade Deficit,” Fletcher objected to my description of America’s trade deficit as “an accounting abstraction” (see Chapter 5 of my 2009 book, Mad about Trade). No news there. Fletcher is the author of a book critical of free trade. But in scanning his column, I noticed the arguments and even the words had a familiar ring.
A Google search reminded me of another column Fletcher had written five months ago for the Huffington Post, on Feb. 15, 2011, under the headline, “America’s Trade Deficit Is, Too, Real Money.” In that column he also took me to task for calling the trade deficit “an accounting abstraction.” In fact, except for a change in the lead, the two columns are virtually identical. One of our Cato interns ran the two columns through DOC Cop, an online software tool for professors on the prowl for plagiarism in student papers. The analysis found that 91 percent of the two columns were identical verbatim.
(I’ve written two recent columns myself on the trade deficit, for Barron’s Weekly and the Washington Times. For the record, when I ran my two articles through DOC Cop, the site informed me that it “did not find plagiarism in your material.”)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m big on free speech and the First Amendment. If the owners of the Huffington Post want to run the exact same column, or 91 percent of the same column, from the same author every week of the year, it is their publication. But if reprinting almost identical columns a few months apart on the same web site has become normal, the rules of journalistic commentary really are shifting.
Imagine the New York Times running a Thomas Friedman column that was 91 percent identical to a column of his that ran in the paper five months earlier, except for a new headline and a tweak of the lead. The owners and readers of the Times would be understandably troubled.
Of course, Thomas Friedman gets paid well to produce fresh copy for every column. I have no idea what financial arrangements Ian Fletcher has with the Huffington Post to recycle his five-month-old columns, but if he’s providing them free of charge, then his pay is about right.