Current staffers at The New York Times expressed deep frustration Thursday after former executive editor Jill Abramson was accused of plagiarism in her new book Merchants of Truth.
In conversations with The Daily Beast, multiple current Times editorial employees fretted that the paper‘s critics would gleefully use the revelations to unfairly malign the company, which had nothing to do with the book.
“This is just one more piece of ammo for fake news trolls and Trump that per se damages media credibility,” said one staffer, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the company.
“It’s puzzling,” another employee added. “People are worried it will be used to bash the Times.”
Not all internal reactions were so negative, however.
While Abramson was fired by the Times in 2014, she maintains a positive relationship with some reporters and editors there. Several of those staffers speculated that the problems were likely the fault of a research assistant Abramson hired to help her write the book.
“Sounds like she hired a cheap assistant,” one Times journalist said. “I don’t think she went cutting and pasting herself.”
Others seemed to dismiss the plagiarism as simply unintentional mistakes.
“This is a deeply footnoted book and gives a lot of credit where credit is due,” said one current employee. “This is a person that uses sources in a conventional way. It looks like the sloppiness of doing it poorly. I don’t see the desire to not give credit for others work or wholesale robbing that plagiarism is. It looks like Jill was sloppy.”
“There was an error here but I’m not sure it’s plagiarism.”
Bill Keller, her predecessor as executive editor at the Times, told The Daily Beast that while there were “some passages that should have been in quotation marks with attribution,” he believes the book is being unfairly maligned.
“I’ve known Jill a long time,” he said. “I know her to be a journalist of courage and integrity. She’s written a good and important book and I think it’s a shame some carelessness in the attribution overshadows an important work.”
Keller added: “The knives are out for Jill.”
The plagiarism accusations began Wednesday evening when Vice News correspondent Michael Moynihan posted a series of tweets demonstrating how Abramson appeared to copy large portions of other writers’ work without proper citation.
In a series of statements, Abramson noted how her book had 70 pages of footnotes and, in some cases, articles had not been clearly noted or were in the wrong place. “The book is over 500 pages. All of the ideas in the book are original, all the opinions are mine,” she said in a statement. “The passages in question involve facts that should have been perfectly cited in my footnotes and weren’t.”
“The notes don’t match up with the right pages in a few cases and this was unintentional and will be promptly corrected,” she admitted on Thursday afternoon. “The language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text. This, too, will be fixed.”
However, she also suggested to Fox News and in other statements that Vice employees were simply nitpicking the book because they didn’t like her “balanced” portrayal of their outlet.
Since texts from Abramson’s book began leaking to the public last month, Merchants of Truth has been a flashpoint of controversy. Vice employees pointed out that the early drafts had jumbled facts and quotes, which some attributed to her claims that she, by her own admission, does not record interviews.
And the chapters about the Times itself had already been a headache for the newspaper. Abramson criticized her former employer’s coverage of the 2016 election, and detailed an alleged profane outburst by current executive editor Dean Baquet, who clashed with Abramson and eventually replaced her.
Thus far, the claims of plagiarism and factual errors haven’t fazed the companies she currently works with.
Guardian US, where she has written since March 2016, said it would not pull her semi-regular column on media and politics. Harvard University, where Abramson teaches an English course, declined to comment when asked about the claims. And her book’s publisher Simon & Schuster defended Merchants of Truth as “important, exhaustively researched and meticulously sourced book about the media business in a critical moment of transition.”
“It has been published with an extraordinary degree of transparency toward its subjects; each of the four news organizations covered in the book was given ample time and opportunity to comment on the content, and where appropriate the author made changes and corrections,” the publisher’s spokesperson said. “If upon further examination changes or attributions are deemed necessary we stand ready to work with the author in making those revisions.”
Correction: This article previously quoted a source as wrongly saying a current New York Times columnist was once embroiled in a plagiarism scandal. We regret the error.