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Plagiarize - to take (ideas, writings, etc.) from (another) and pass them off as one's own.

Time and again, I've written about the obviously flawed journalistic practices of the Village Voice, New York City's answer to a local free advertising rag with a Napoleon complex. (see "Another Angry Letter To The Village Voice" http://bullymag.com/6.4.01/voice-060401.html).

But the most recent example of the Voice's shoddy reporting is really worthy of our Horseshit in Journalism Award.

Recently, The Voice published an article entitled "A Scene Grows In Brooklyn." (www.villagevoice.com/issues/0145/parker.php) The piece described the somewhat growing music scene in the northeast section of Williamsburg. The piece talked about several clubs such as North Six, Warsaw, and Luxx, as well as many of the local bands and a recently released compilation of Brooklyn bands entitled This Is Next Year. The author, Chris Parker, tried to paint a picture of a somewhat avante guarde musical atmosphere in Williamsburg, from the music itself to the décor at the clubs, even going as far as to say that Luxx "has-with its crush of colors, reflective wallpaper, lights and tubing-been compared to a Coney Island bumper car ring."

One slight problem here.

A story on the same topic had already been written months earlier by Free Williasmburg [www.freewilliamsburg.com/september_2001/mightymusic.html], a local free culture site that covers music and art in Brooklyn. The Free Williamsburg article, authored by Grant Moser two months previous, was called "A Scene Grows In Brooklyn." Hmmm, makes you wonder don't it.

But the similarities don't stop there. In the original article, Moser discusses North Six, Warsaw, and Luxx, as well as the This Is Next Year compilation. Oh yeah, he also described Luxx by saying it "reminded me of a Coney Island bumper car ring. Reflective wallpaper, clear plastic tubing, lights and a smash of colors came from all directions."

Naturally, Free Williamsburg publisher Rob Lanham was a bit disturbed to say the least. So he fired off a letter to The Voice [http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0146/letters.php] and their competitor, The New York Press. The Voice made no response at this time other than to leave a voice mail for Lanham stating his letter would run in the next issue.

Not feeling satisfied, Lanham wrote another letter accusing them of copyright infringement and requesting they remove the article from their Web site (there was no way to take back the printed version obviously). This time Voice managing editor Doug Simmons responded by telephoning Lanham and yelling at him angrily during the conversation. Simmons called Lanham an "amateur", implied that the Free Williamsburg publisher was "hysterical," and even went as far as to say Lanham "was full of shit."

When The New York Observer wrote a small and slightly Voice-friendly piece (http://www.observer.com/pages/story.asp?ID=5139 -- scroll down to 2nd article) on the issue, Simmons also stated that any legal claim by Lanham was "absolute bullshit" and asked "How did we damage him? By giving him a plug?" He then added:

"If I feel bad about anything, it's the bumper-car line. We should have given him credit for that line. If the writer had just done that, none of this would have happened. It's a matter of simple attribution. But I see one line and a terrible headline from a tired editor. I bet 'A (Blank) Grows in Brooklyn' has appeared in The Village Voice a dozen times. It's clichéd and never should have run."

Meanwhile the author of the Voice piece Chris Parker stated that he didn't encounter the Moser article until two weeks into his reporting. He then added, "There's no copyright on trend stories."

We did contact the Village Voice about this article and they chose not to respond by time of publication.

All discussion of copyright infringement aside as that is an issue for the courts to settle, this is at the very minimum a clear case of plagiarism if nothing else. Even by the Voice's own admission they copped at least one line and a headline from the original article by Free Williamsburg without credit. (If the author saw the FW article two weeks into the reporting, he obviously saw the headline, no?). In addition to hurling curse words at Lanham during their phone conversation, Simmons said the Voice was "red-faced about the article," thus implying some form of guilt. (But for what if the Voice said they did nothing wrong?) Simmons seems to forget that in the world of professional journalism he claims to belong to, plagiarism is a no-no.

Simmon's reference to 'harm' as the litmus test for plagiarism is ridiculous. Plagiarism is first and foremost a moral crime- it's about deception, and it's reprehensible because the plagiarist is passing off someone else's ideas or words as his own. This is why most colleges and universities threaten to boot from campus the student who plagiarizes: it's not because he harmed, say, the publisher of Cliff Notes or the author of "A Quick Guide to the Merchant of Venice," it's because the co-ed is trying to deceive his instructor. In this case, Moser was given no credit for his work, Parker claimed it all was his own. How can that be just?

Moreover, how does this attitude toward content ownership play out in real life? Does the Voice want to argue that any publication may nab whatever it wants from any others provided it does not 'harm,' e.g., decrease the number of readers or ad revenue of the robbed? If so, then the Voice ought to prepare itself for the launch of, say, the Ohio Voice newspaper. Inside one will find all sorts of stories lifted from the Voice. And hey, since the readers will be Ohio folks who don't read the Voice, thus it won't hurt the Voice, it should be OK with the Voice. Right?

Side Note: To this date, the title or description of Luxx has not been credited to Free Williamsburg on the Village Voice's Web site. Just by searching for "grows in Brooklyn" on www.villagevoice.com you will pull up a total of three articles, including the one discussed above, dating as far back as March 2000. Not exactly the dozen Simmons discussed, but still a glaring example of the Voice's piss poor use of a hackneyed headline.

This article also appears here at BullyMag.com. We asked for permission.

Free Williamsburg© | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
[email protected] | December 2001 | Issue 21
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