Malcolm Gladwell’s Plagiarism Problem

Is the New Yorker’s star writer—and author of The Tipping Point—guilty of plagiarism, as two bloggers suggest, or not attributing material to sources properly?

Jerome Favre/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The pseudonymous blogging duo at Our Bad Media—who most recently indicted CNN host and foreign policy intellectual Fareed Zakaria on charges of rampant plagiarism—have a new target: star New Yorker writer and mega-bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell.

In a lengthy bill of particulars posted Thursday morning on their Web site, @Blippoblappo and @Crushingbort—their deceptively silly Twitter handles—accused Gladwell of three instances of alleged plagiarism dating back to 2010.

Using the sarcastic headline “Tipping Points: Malcolm Gladwell Could Use a Few”—a reference to the title of one of the celebrity social theorist’s more influential books—the bloggers list three allegedly problematic New Yorker articles by Gladwell: a June 24, 2013 piece titled “The Gift of Doubt”; a May 16, 2011 piece titled “Creation Myth”; and an Oct. 4, 2010 column titled “Small Change.

@Blippoblappo and @Crushingbort added that “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.”

In his response to the charges, Gladwell affected a tone of sangfroid and referred inquiring minds to his long New Yorker essay from 2004, “Something Borrowed,” that “perhaps best captures my feelings on the subject.”

In the piece, Gladwell asked, “Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?” His answer generally was no. In an email to Newsweek, Gladwell added: “I think [New Yorker editor] David Remnick is about to (or already has) said something on this.”

Indeed, Remnick issued a statement in which he didn’t go out of his way to defend his prized writer; to the contrary, he agreed with @Blippoblappo and @Crushingbort that Gladwell in his 2010 piece should have credited Miles Wolff’s 1970 book, Lunch at the Five and Ten, for a detailed description of a 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, during the civil rights movement.

“We try to make judgments about source attribution with fairness and in good faith. But we don’t always get it right,” Remnick wrote. “In retrospect, for example, we should have credited Miles Wolff’s 1970 book about Greensboro, because it’s central to our understanding of those events. We sometimes fall short, but our hope is always to give readers and sources the consideration they deserve.”

Remnick added: “The issue is not really about Malcolm. And, to be clear, it isn’t really about plagiarism. The issue is an ongoing editorial challenge known to writers and editors everywhere—to what extent should a piece of journalism, which doesn’t have the apparatus of academic footnotes, credit secondary sources?”

Gladwell might be happier with the comments of one of his supposed victims, tech journalist Jeffrey S. Young, who said in an interview with the Daily Beast that he was unconcerned and even flattered that Gladwell had cribbed a quote without attribution from his 1987 biography of Steve Jobs—another allegation by Our Bad Media.

The offending quote—from Young’s reporting on a talk by Xerox engineer Larry Tesler--concerned Jobs’s visit to a Xerox product development facility, being entranced by that company’s early version of a personal computer, and asking whether, for a million dollars, Xerox would “open its kimono” to Apple.

“Plagiarism is not something I’m worried about,” Young said, adding that he has been accused of the crime himself. “I’m not going to claim any plagiarism. Would I like to see attribution? That would be nice. But it’s really a slippery wicket…It’s all kind of a big mass and we all stir it up and, hey, whatever.”

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In the 2013 piece, Our Bad Media argues, Gladwell plagiarized facts about the 19th century Troy-Greenfield railroad by not crediting the ur-source, historian John Sawyer.

The prosecutorial bloggers—who in a recent email exchange with Newsweek claimed they aren’t journalists but simply enjoy sniffing out media malpractice as a hobby—are clearly not fans of Gladwell’s oeuvre.

“Malcolm Gladwell has made a name for himself peddling social theories that attempt to explain our world in simple-to-understand and incorrect ways,” they write, noting that “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.”