Scott Brown's Plagiarized Message: Whose Words Are They?

The scandal reveals how a wall of ghostwriters, public relations specialists, and careless interns separates politicians from the writing they purportedly author 

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Was Scott Brown embarrassed by the news that a "message from Scott" on his website describing "what he was raised to believe" was instead a message from the website of Elizabeth Dole? Apparently not. He dismissed questions about the plagiarism as silly, and so it must seem to all the other politicians who rely on staff to write their speeches, op-ed columns, and website messages, with no qualms about letting other people put words in their mouths. If a staff member plagiarizes, borrowing someone else's language without attribution, what's the harm? A senator's words are often falsely attributed to him anyway. (Did Elizabeth Dole write the passage initially attributed to her?) It's not surprising that politicians who appear to write clearly or even eloquently are sometimes tongue tied in live debates.  

Voters don't seem to notice or mind the routine ghostwriting and de facto plagiarizing; in fact (as I've noted here) they persist in giving politicians and other celebrities, in name only, authors' credit for other people's words. In this culture, why should Brown or his staffers acknowledge that the senator should have articulated his personal values himself? Why shouldn't his staff dismiss the plagiarism charge as "much ado about nothing?" Language should not have been lifted from Dole's website, which his staff acknowledges, blaming the plagiarism on an intern's "human error" -- namely the failure to reword the statement Dole or her ghostwriter drafted. But it seems not to have occurred to the senator or his staff that Brown could have, should have taken a moment to think about the values with which he, not some intern, was allegedly raised, and write or dictate a sentence or two describing them, which staff could have edited. 

Voters who take note of this little plagiarism story will surely forget it soon, and many no doubt understand that a statement of values purportedly by a politician is often just part of a marketing campaign, devised by consultants or staff. But ghostwriting and plagiarism are not "nothing." Speaking for yourself, you inevitably reveal yourself, intentionally or not; pretending to speak for yourself, while hiring others to speak for you, you remain in the shadows. Who are these people we send to Washington to run the country? Who knows?

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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