Journalist Claims Julia Child's Nephew-Author Is a Plagiarist

Apparently footnotes in Alex Prud'homme's new book won't suffice

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Players: Emily Green, environmental journalist who writes for the Los Angeles Times; Alex Prud'homme, great-nephew of Julia Child and the author of The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century, a book that "will change the way we think about the water we drink"

The Opening Serve: Green contends that Prud'homme plagiarized parts of his book from a five-part article she had written about Las Vegas's water supply for the Las Vegas Sun. She writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, "So, I find myself wondering, what am I going to do about the man who I think plagiarized me," she wrote. "Sue him? I’ve bleated to a few lawyers. Humiliate him in front of his editor? I’ve written her. Shame him? I’m writing this." Green recounts a story of being approached by a producer at Patricipant Media (An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc.) in regards to an upcoming book adaptation. She shared her sources with him assuming she'd appear in the the movie. "Standing in Vroman’s, holding The Ripple Effect, it seemed likely that this was the book that Participant was adapting," she wrote. "Sure enough, there was a Vegas chapter." It's passages in that Vegas chapter that Green points to in objecting to Prud'homme's work. Throughout her article she highlights similar phrases and research that appeared in her story and Prud'homme's book, 13 in total, Green claims on the Los Angeles Review of Books Web site (for Green's formal response and side-by-side comparison click here). She writes that the "moment" that "made [her] blood boil ... came on seeing Prud’homme’s scene-setting."  Here's the comparison:


Las Vegas lies at the intersection of three deserts. To the west is the Mojave, to the south the Sonoran, and to the north the Great Basin.


Las Vegas sits at the intersection of three deserts. To the south is the Sonoran, to the west is the Mojave, and to the north lies the Great Basin.

The similarities in those two passages caught the eye of outsiders like Jon Fleck, a journalist in New Mexico. Who writes, "Savor that simple four-word phrase: 'intersection of three deserts.' In the entire corpus indexed by Google, that phrase appears to have been written only three times...Sadly for Emily, Prud’homme’s book is the first Google hit."  Green was livid, as she recounts at the Los Angeles Review of Books: "As anger ebbs and flows through my veins, I don’t know what I want from Prud’homme," she wrote. "There is no right response and there are plenty of wrong ones, including the one that I made after getting home from Vroman’s [a book store], which was to send him a drunken message via his website..."

The Return Volley: Prud'homme's publisher, Scribner, denied Green's claims of plagiarism. "Frankly we are at a loss to understand what exactly it is you are complaining about," said their lawyer to Green. Prud'homme also responded to the message Green sent him while intoxicated. "As a former fact-checker, and a writer who attempts to be as scrupulous as possible, I am sensitive to issues of accuracy and attribution," he wrote in response. Green confirms that they have exchanged more formal, less inebriated e-mails. "I have gone over my notes and sources, and remain convinced that I did not take unfair advantage of your work in The Ripple Effect," Prud'homme responded. "Not only are there multiple references to your series in the Index and Notes in my book, as you acknowledge, but I cite your work in at least five of the nine instances you claim that I did not give you credit...Once your articles were published, they became a legitimate resource for other journalists to use." But Green points out on the Los Angeles Review of Books site that that citations don't quite make up for so much borrowing, nor can one necessarily dismiss similarities in language by saying that there are only so many ways to say something.

Leaving aside that the people’s encyclopedia doesn’t place Las Vegas at the center of any of its desert entries in order to propel a specific story forwards, the surprise here is that Wikipedia is offered as a source [by Prud'homme]. I did use the website of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for help, but my description sprang from a joint recommendation from College of Southern Nevada botanist David Charlet and University of Las Vegas Nevada biologist Jim Deacon to overlay a map of the region with another map breaking down its floristic provinces, thus to let the plants and animals show me the water. 

Here, of course, the spat gets into a fight familiar, say, to Web media folk: speed versus thoroughness, original reporting versus aggregation. Green expresses her frustration on the Los Angeles Review of Books Web site. "I worked slowly and he worked fast," she wrote. "He beat me to press in book form on the Vegas story. Am I jealous? Yes. Is this sour grapes? Yes again. Is Prud’homme largely competent, honest, and kind to children? I have no idea. Probably. He’s related to Julia. But reporting, especially reporting western water, is hard, expensive, and increasingly rare."  She adds:

I wonder if the finer points of accreditation aren’t the least of a newspaper reporter’s problems these days. Reporters rarely own copyright of a published newspaper article, even when it’s a massive effort. The upshot? At the very points where Prud’homme’s language and mine were the most similar, only the Las Vegas Sun and — hilariously — Prud’homme now can claim copyright. 

Scribner's official statement reads, "Alex Prud’homme’s THE RIPPLE EFFECT is an exhaustively researched and well-sourced work about a critical issue of our times. Emily Green’s claims are entirely without merit. The author has been in touch with Green, and responded to her concerns point by point."  For Prud'homme's review of Green's charges click here.

What They Say They're Fighting About: Whether or not Prud'homme plagiarized Green's work.

What They're Really Fighting About: Business and the livelihood of investigative journalism. Green believes her hard work was cannibalized and parlayed into a profit by Prud'homme. Prud'homme's believes that Green's articles are fair game once they are published.

Who's Winning Now: Prud'homme. He has the book, the appearance on The Daily Show, and is related to Julia Child--which, in Green's view, might mean he's genetically coded to be "competent, honest, and kind to children." Though Green concedes that she wasn't nimble and speedy enough to get a book deal out of her reporting, she does pose valid questions about investigative journalism, its benefit and perhaps its fleeting existence--something that might not win her the battle with Prud'homme. But perhaps Green's spat may further a bigger discussion on why investigative journalism warrants more than just a footnote.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.