- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Jim Brown served as both Louisiana secretary of state and insurance commissioner before being sentenced to six months in federal prison for lying to an FBI agent. Today he's reinvented himself as a publisher, columnist and pundit specializing in Bayou State politics.
On Aug. 19 of last year, Jim Brown — the state's former insurance commissioner turned political pundit — sent out his weekly column to the blogs and newspapers that publish him regularly. The "Ground Zero mosque" was then a hot topic, and Brown's column argued for a more nuanced look at Islam: "Just because someone is an Irish catholic living in New Orleans doesn't mean he's sympathetic to Irish Republican Army terrorists. Southern Baptists do not condone the murderers of abortion doctors."
It was an elegant argument — but a familiar one to readers of The New York Times. Three days before Brown published his column, the Times ran an essay by noted historian William Dalrymple, which read in part: "The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn't mean he's in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors."
In the same Aug. 19 column, Brown wrote: "Shortly after the Times story ran, conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviewed Abdul Rauf's wife, Daisy Khan, while guest-hosting The O'Reilly Factor on Fox. In hindsight, the segment is remarkable for its cordiality. 'I can't find many people who really have a problem with it,' Ingraham says of the mosque project, adding at the end of the interview, 'I like what you're trying to do.'"
The paragraph was similar to one penned three days earlier by Justin Elliott of Salon.com, who had written: "Conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviews Abdul Rauf's wife, Daisy Khan, while guest-hosting The O'Reilly Factor on Fox. In hindsight, the segment is remarkable for its cordiality. 'I can't find many people who really have a problem with it,' Ingraham says of the Cordoba project, adding at the end of the interview, 'I like what you're trying to do.'"
Contacted last week, Elliott wrote, "This is clear-cut plagiarism. It should have been quoted and the source cited."
But is it? Experts with whom we spoke had varying opinions.
Gambit reviewed more than three years of Brown's columns. Many are leavened with a signature Cajun humor and appear to be wholly original works, particularly those regarding the insurance industry and his personal views of the American justice system. But others bore distinct similarities to earlier works by other writers — often, works that appeared in national magazines and newspapers days before Brown released his column.
In a statement to Gambit, Brown wrote, "I've written hundreds of commentaries over the past 10 years. You apparently correctly pointed out that in a few of these articles, there were a few sentences that either were not properly attributed or were not surrounded in quotes. But in a number of instances, the party or publication making the quote was cited earlier in my commentary." (Brown's full statement, along with the examples sent to him by Gambit, are in the sidebar "You Be the Judge.")
Brown, 71, has been a force in both politics and media during his career. He served as Louisiana Secretary of State for eight years in the 1980s, lost a race for governor in 1987, then came back four years later to win the race for state insurance commissioner in 1991, a position he held until he was indicted for lying to an FBI agent during his third term.
Though he continues to assert his innocence in the federal case, Brown served six months in prison. Since his release, Brown (the father of television news personality Campbell Brown) has built a small media empire, establishing a Baton Rouge publishing house, the Lisburn Press, which has published his own tome, Justice Denied, as well as Edwin Edwards, Leo Honeycutt's recent biography of the former governor. His website offers his services as a speaker as well as a free "Jim Brown's Common Sense" iPhone app. Brown also hosts a syndicated hour-long radio show once a week.
His most visible output, however, is his political column, which appears in media outlets around the state.
Brown's weekly column (which the Lisburn Press anthologized in a 2008 collection, Adventures in an Alternative Reality of Living in Louisiana) has run for years at various times in Gulf Coast outlets, including on newspaper websites such as The Ouachita Citizen and HoumaToday.com (the website of The Houma Courier) as well as political blogs across the Gulf Coast. Brown's column is a fixture on the New Orleans based BayouBuzz as well as Central Louisiana Politics and the Mississippi-based Slabbed, on the liberal blog The Daily Kingfish as well as its polar opposite, The Louisiana Conservative.
The Houma Courier and Slabbed were among the outlets that ran Brown's Nov. 12, 2009, column, "Why Aren't We the Greatest Generation?". In it, Brown took a slam at today's young people, writing, "In his new book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein has little hope for young people today. Ignorant of politics and government, art and music, prose and poetry, The Dumbest Generation is content to turn up their iPods and tune out the realities of the adult world. It is brash, pampered, dumb — and content to stay that way."
On Jan. 15 of that year, David N. Bass reviewed Bauerlein's book for The American Spectator, writing, "Mark Bauerlein seems an unlikely prospect for penning an ostentatious book like The Dumbest Generation. ... Ignorant of politics and government, art and music, prose and poetry, the Dumbest Generation is content to turn up its iPods and tune out the realities of the adult world. It is brash, pampered, young, and dumb — and content to stay that way."
In an email to Gambit, Bass wrote, "It does appear to be a direct lift of the sentences. This book review initially ran in our publication, Carolina Journal, and later in The American Spectator." (Brown didn't address this instance in his statement.)
Keith Magill, executive editor of the Houma Courier, which ran the "Dumbest Generation" article, said the similarities between the two works were "distressing, to say the least. It sure looks like it falls under the rubric of plagiarism to me." Magill says his paper only runs Brown's column occasionally. "It's not something we take lightly here," he added. "I'm not sure at this stage what we're going to do, but I'm pretty sure it's going to merit a response."
Brown's Feb. 4, 2010, column, datelined "Portland, Oregon," compared the progressive Northwestern city to the iPad: "The new sleek iPad tablet is loaded with impressive, sophisticated technology that Apple's engineers have worked on for years. It's the kind of 'thinking ahead' philosophy and culture that Steve Jobs and Apple nurture and are known for. The Oregon approach seems to be what an interesting challenge it would be if they could corral an equivalent level of ingenuity and talent available to Steve Jobs to solve some of the complex issues facing their state."
Three days earlier, Dave Treibel, a writer for OregonLive.com, the Internet arm of The Oregonian, had written, "The new sleek tablet is loaded with impressive, sophisticated technology that Apple's engineers have worked on for years. It's the kind of 'thinking ahead' philosophy and culture that Steve Jobs and Apple nurture and are known for. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if Obama could corral an equivalent level of ingenuity and talent available to Steve Jobs to solve some of the complex issues facing our country?'"
"I often make notes from shows like Morning Joe, or from numerous websites and papers I read each day," Brown told Gambit. "A review of my numerous articles will show that I often use several quotes in each column that are always attributed."
Jonathan Bailey is a New Orleans businessman whose company, Copybyte, specializes in detecting plagiarism in journalism and academia. Gambit sent Bailey four representative samples from Brown's columns, along with text from the originals to which they bore a resemblance. Three of the four were, in Bailey's opinion, "pretty clear-cut examples of plagiarism — clearly copy-and-paste jobs with minor rewritings."
One of the examples came from a December 2010 Brown column about the late economist Milton Friedman. Brown wrote, "Friedman's ideas were embraced by President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and lauded by many in the business world. But they were also controversial because of the deep cuts in government spending and the more restricted role they entailed for government in buffering citizens from economic forces."
Back in 2006, when Friedman died, CNN's story of his passing contained this passage: "Friedman's ideas were embraced by President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and lauded by many in the business world. But they were also controversial because of the deep cuts in government spending and the more restricted role they entailed for government in buffering citizens from economic forces."
Bailey's take? "This is clear-cut plagiarism."
But many of the writers themselves weren't so sure. Gambit contacted several journalists whose work was similar to (and predated) various passages in Brown's columns. Dalrymple, the Islam historian, wrote in an email, "Haha... The whole of literature is a game of Chinese whispers and we all borrow and learn from our peers. It's clear your friend has read my piece, but whether it's plagiarism or influence is not for me to judge."
Alison Fitzgerald, a reporter for Bloomberg News whose February 2009 analysis of a Securities and Exchange Commission deal bore a resemblance to a Brown essay on the same topic published three months later, wrote to Gambit in an email: "While there are certainly similarities here, I'm not equipped to determine whether this is plagiarism," adding she intended to forward the example to Bloomberg's in-house attorney for review.
In March 2008, Brown wrote a column on highway privatization, portions of which bore a strong resemblance to a 2007 Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Steven Malanga. (See "You Be the Judge.") Malanga told Gambit, "His passage does seem awfully close to mine in that both the ideas proceed together in the same way sentence by sentence and some of the language is exactly the same as mine. I was not aware of this." Malanga concluded, "I leave it up to editors who publish his work to decide if they consider this improper."
Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute vice president and Senior Scholar on the journalism foundation's Reporting, Writing & Editing faculty, says Brown's use of Malanga's words, among other examples, shows "a pattern of sloppy or no attribution," and that "(Brown) is only one step away from doing it responsibly."
In 1983, the Washington Journalism Review published Clark's piece titled "The Unoriginal Sin" — written way before the Internet made copy-and-paste journalism simple. "In the world of journalism, a world without footnotes, the snatching of words and ideas is too often ignored, misunderstood or considered standard procedure," he wrote. "Reporters plagiarize from novels, encyclopedias, textbooks, magazines, wire stories, syndicated columns, press releases, competing newspapers and the morgue. Some who commit the unoriginal sin are charlatans. Others resort to it in moments of pressure or personal crisis. Others slide into it out of naivete or ignorance. They do not know how much borrowing is too much, because teachers and editors have failed to set limits and suggest guidelines."
The Internet has compounded the problem, along with the concept of "general knowledge." For example, how many sources do you need to print verdict results, or baseball scores?
Clark sketched three "academic" plagiarism scenarios: "whole cloth" borrowing, where a writer "makes believe something that somebody else has written is his own"; a "mosaic," where a writer takes pieces of an original story and moves them around; and the apt phrase, where a few borrowed words perfectly fill in a writer's original sentence. Clark says Brown's work falls in the two latter categories.
The solution: "When in doubt, attribute," Clark says. "It looks like the author, you can see the effort he's made to rephrase. That would've been fine if he'd just somehow managed to mention the L.A. Times or The Wall Street Journal."
"It is my intention to cite sources and attribute quotes," Brown wrote to Gambit. "If any mistakes were made, they were not intentional. I typically quote many people and do my best to attribute quotes to the appropriate source; any errors in punctuation or proper attribution are purely an oversight."
Instances of misattribution have created scandals at newspapers and websites large and small in recent years. Jayson Blair, a reporter for The New York Times, embarrassed the paper in 2003 when an apparent instance of plagiarism turned up dozens of fabrications in his stories. Last year, Gerald Posner left his position as chief investigative reporter for Tina Brown's website The Daily Beast after the Miami New Times, among other sources, cited dozens of passages from his articles and books that hewed closely to the work of others. (Posner claimed the problem came from his electronic filing system.)
A young writer named Ben Domenech resigned from a pundit job at The Washington Post's website after only three days when readers began finding examples of plagiarism dating back to Domenech's college days. In an editor's note acknowledging Domenech's resignation, Jim Brady, executive editor of WashingtonPost.com, noted, "Plagiarism is perhaps the most serious offense that a writer can commit or be accused of." (The Post's then-ombudsman, Deborah Howell, described it more colorfully as "a f---in' disaster.")
Mark Moseley, a New Orleans blogger (righthandthief.blogspot.com) says he noticed Brown's apparent lifting from other sources three or four years ago. "I was disappointed in his reach in the local blogosphere and all the people who reprinted him, including some I esteemed," Moseley says.
Moseley brought the matter to the attention of the publisher of Slabbed in the blog's comment section, but says nothing was done. (Indeed, Slabbed continues to reprint Brown's column.) Moseley also wrote about Brown's columns on the nonprofit news site The Lens, but says he did not contact Brown for comment, nor did his column receive reaction from Brown or any of his editors.
One of Brown's most visible local outlets is BayouBuzz.com, the political website founded by New Orleans attorney Stephen Sabludowsky, a friend of Brown's. Sabludowsky told Gambit he has published Brown on a weekly basis "for years," but preferred not to discuss the matter "until I talk to Jim."
Lamar Parmentel is the publisher of The Daily Kingfish, a left-leaning political blog that frequently publishes Brown's columns. Parmentel told Gambit he had been aware of Moseley's claims. "Just to be clear, Mr. Brown posts his content to the DKF under his own name, on his own accord," Parmentel wrote. "Like many other blogs, DKF is basically generated by user content (i.e. there isn't a formal editorial chain of command, so to speak) and published at everyone's own risk." Parmentel added, "Brown's pieces never appear on the front page of DKF because they are not original (he cross-posts them all over the place) ... But in an attempt not to censor anyone because of my distaste, we have never tried to dissuade anyone from posting."
Brown said his column is "a hobby and not a business," adding, "My commentaries are sent out to a mailing list of friends and contacts, and I receive no payment for what I write. It is just a weekly blog on my personal website where I try to express thoughts on current issues of interest. It's often just my ramblings. If someone wants to use any part of the commentary, fine and so be it. Nothing I do is copyrighted."
Occasionally, Brown's borrowing has meant he's gotten some things wrong. When Gov. Bobby Jindal did the response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, some pundits compared his demeanor to that of Fred Rogers, the children's television host. Brown took umbrage in his column with a parable: "But don't sell Mr. Rogers short. You may not know it, but the wimpy little guy on PBS was a Navy Seal, combat proven in Vietnam with supposedly over twenty-five confirmed kills to his name. And that long sleeve sweater? I'm told it was to cover a number of tattoos on his forearm and biceps."
It wasn't true, of course. Brown's wording is very close to that of a viral email that has circulated off and on for years — but which is a hoax. Rogers had neither a military career nor tattoos. But Brown's tale of gentle, sweater-wearing Mr. Rogers as a tattooed assassin was reprinted not only on his website, but also on political blogs such as Slabbed, Bayou Perspective, Central Louisiana Politics and The Louisiana Conservative.
The day Gambit asked Brown for an interview on this matter, the Kansas City Star issued a statement regarding Steve Penn, a metro columnist and 31-year veteran at the paper. After an investigation, the paper determined Penn was "in some cases presenting others' conclusions and opinions as his own and without attribution. ... Editors found more than a dozen examples in Penn's columns dating back to 2008."
The Star fired Penn that day.
Brown seems to be in no such danger. Since Gambit's inquiry, Brown says, he's made corrections to the stories on his own website.
"I have talked to my editor (me)," he wrote, "and the items you pointed out have been corrected and properly cited."