Fareed Zakaria Would Have Been Totally in the Clear—Had He Been an Early American Newspaperman

Before anyone could plagiarize, we had to invent it.

bostonteaparty615.jpg

Americans learned of the Boston Tea Party because colonial newspapers copied verbatim and ran unattributed the account of an "An Impartial Observer." And that was totally okay! (Wikimedia Commons)

In the past week, ESPN and Fareed Zakaria have both copied someone else's work and used it nearly verbatim. They're guilty of plagiarism -- which, in the world of journalism, might lead only to a suspension, but which, in the world of academia, constitutes academic dishonesty and can get you thrown out of school. (Accordingly, the Yale Daily News reports Zakaria might lose his trusteeship at Yale.)

And rightly so. Everyone agrees: Plagiarism is bad.

But it hasn't always been that way. According to historian Todd Andrlik, plagiarism initially strengthened American communities. In fact, it may have made the American Revolution possible. He writes at the Huffington Post:

Without professional writing staffs of journalists or correspondents, eighteenth-century newspaper printers relied heavily on an intercolonial newspaper exchange system to fill their pages. Printers often copied entire paragraphs or columns directly from other newspapers and frequently without attribution. As a result, identical news reports often appeared in multiple papers throughout America. This news-swapping technique, and resulting plagiarism, helped spread the ideas of liberty and uphold the colonists' resistance to British Parliament.

Which is fascinating by itself: a vast syndicated content network (as we'd now call it) among the colonies' 20-odd papers. Except the key thing here is that this practice wasn't plagiarism. (Or it's only plagiarism as we'd now call it.) Cut to historian Joseph Adelman:

It wasn't [plaigiarism] and it couldn't have been, because it hadn't been invented yet. (Neither, by the way, had "journalism" itself, nor for that matter objectivity.) Treating the practices of the eighteenth century as if they were aware of twenty-first-century norms does a disservice to the concept of plagiarism and to our understanding of how people acted in the past.

Plaigiarism's a crime now. But it hasn't always been, and "plagiarism" by any other name, in any other era, might not actually be plagarism. 

This is another example of how the way we treat ideas changes over time, in response to economics and scarcity and technology. Before we can even talk about culture, we have to have a way of talking about it and understanding it -- and that way is shaped and invented and experimented with, same as anything else.

And plagiarism, by the way, wasn't even always a crime in an academic context. Andrlik (who has a book on early American newspapers coming out in November) adds that "the first two histories of the American Revolution," William Gordon's in 1788 and David Ramsay's in 1789, both liberally borrowed from a certain London record, the Annual Register. And the Annual Register, a political and literary concern... "heavily relied on newspapers and magazines from the previous year for its content."

Before everything was a block quote, everything was a remix.

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In