Melania & Plagiarism: A Victim’s Perspective

by Rafael Medoff

If Melania Trump were the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, she’d be in big trouble.

The members of that famous rock group were in court recently, accused of plagiarizing part of their mega-hit “Stairway to Heaven” from another band’s song. The fact that “Stairway” has generated many millions of dollars in royalties gave the alleged victim a basis for pursuing the case. If Led Zeppelin had done what Melania Trump did to Michelle Obama, Zeppelin’s victim would have stood to win a very substantial sum.

But not many victims of plagiarism can demonstrate either that they were financially harmed or that the plagiarist reaped a significant profit from the theft. As a result, not many plagiarists ever have to face a judge or jury. This is precisely what victims of plagiarism, myself included, find so troubling–the fact that the culprits so often get away with it.

Then-U.S. Senator Joseph Biden was forced out of the 1988 presidential campaign by revelations that he plagiarized speeches by several British and American political leaders. But that did not prevent him from running for president in 2008, and being chosen as Barack Obama’s vice-president. (Ironically, Donald Trump boasted last year that he would “match up great” against Biden in a presidential race because “I’ve had a great record, I haven’t been involved in plagiarism.”)

A longtime adviser to former President Jimmy Carter resigned from the Carter Presidential Center in 2006 after discovering that Carter’s book, “Palestine – Peace Not Apartheid,” contained “elements that were lifted from another source,” and was “replete” with “copied materials not cited.” Yet Mr. Carter’s public career has not suffered any noticeable harm as a result of that revelation.

The editors of Newsweek in 2014 revealed they had found seven instances in which the prize-winning pundit Fareed Zakaria included material in his articles for them that did not contain proper attribution. Similar problems have been found in articles written by Zakaria for Slate, Time, The New Republic, and the Washington Post. Yet Zakaria’s weekly column still appears in the Post, and he continues to host a weekly television shown on CNN.

I was one of 32 authors whose writings were cited, without proper attribution, in the book America, its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism, authored by Prof. Gulie Ne’eman Arad (published in 2000 by Indiana University Press). My colleagues and I found 97 passages in the book in which she used other scholars’ words, without proper citation. Four of us filed a complaint with the American Historical Association. Prof. Arad responded that the 97 “discrepancies,” as she called them, were the result of a “technical problem” caused by her computer software. She even demanded that we issue “an apology” to her, for causing her “emotional grief.”

On December 23, 2002, the AHA’s Professional Division unanimously ruled that Arad was guilty of violating the Association’s strictures against plagiarism, which it defines as “the expropriation of another author’s text, and the presentation of it as one’s own…a serious violation of the ethics of scholarship.” But the AHA did not have any means of penalizing Arad or even compelling her to issue an apology to her victims, and she did not offer any.

An apology might not seem like much, but since there are relatively few avenues of redress for victims of plagiarism, a public acknowledgement of wrongdoing and an expression of remorse would have some value. Perhaps a few potential plagiarists might be deterred by the prospect of having to undergo such a public humbling.

If nothing else, plagiarists should apologize out of self-interest. It’s the most effective way to make the controversy vanish quickly. President Barack Obama’s swift acknowledgment that he inappropriately used phrases from a speech by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick in 2008 put the issue behind him, as did the apology last year by Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson when it emerged that he had used others’ language in one of his books. Melania Trump would be wise to follow in their footsteps; but as her husband has made clear on many occasions, apologizing is not the Trump way.
July 2016