The Tim Goeglein scandal came and went in a single day. Such is the digital age, several characteristics of which this story illuminates:
1. The blazing speed. It was 7:30 a.m. Friday when former News-Sentinel columnist Nancy Nall posted on her blog:
My, my, my. Tim Goeglein, director of the White House office of public liaison, is a plagiarist.
By 7 p.m., less than 12 hours later, the story had raced around the Internet and been seen by millions of people and picked up by the mainstream media, and a major White House assistant had been forced to resign. I know we've gotten used to how the news cycle has been speeded up by the online process, but this was still stunning. This wasn't mere hardware-pushed speed -- a breaking news story for which people all around the world could see a grainy cell-phone photo five minutes after it happened. This was the online dynamic -- people talking about the story and adding to it as it got bigger and more complex throughout the day. This more than the pure technological adaptions is what old-time news organizations have to pay attention to if they are to survive. In our analog days, we would have planned a second-day or even third-day followup story that looked into whether Goeglein had plagiarized any other articles. But the readers of Nall's blog had already started doing that, so we had two staffers who spent most of the day Friday chasing down that angle. So we were able to report -- instead of having it reported about us -- that at least 20 of Goeglein's columns had been lifted from other sources.
2. The depth of material. It is so much easier to plagiarize these days. No more looking through obscure books in the history or literature section of the library. Anything you want to claim as your own is just a cut-and-paste job away. Of course, it's much easier to get caught at it now, too. We all have Google and know how to use it. Goeglein got away with it far longer than he should have, but once the first one was discovered, the rest would be searched out, too. The sheer volume of material on the Web is something not a lot of people have considered the implications of. Why are they still building huge libraries, for goodness sake? How long before the paper photograph and all musical media but the download are things of the past? This is prosaic, I know, but I have a collection of several hundred cookbooks that I rarely consult anymore. If I want to make bean soup, I can spend hours finding just the right recipe in my books or Google it and immediately get nearly 300,000 hits.
3. The excrutiating superficiality. If you look at all the talk about the case (Nall's post has more than 500 comments), you'll see that something like 70 percent consists of liberals gloating about one of those rotten, rightwing conservatives stepping in it. And make no mistake, if a highly placed liberal had been caught stealing others' words, 70 percent would have been conservatives gloating. Schadenfreude is the lingua franca of the blogosphere. The most common logic fault, and therefore the one most to be avoided, is the ad hominem argument -- arguing against the person instead of the position. But many bloggers seem not to be able to get beyond this, so a tiresome amount of time is devoted to people delighted to have discovered -- shock of shocks! -- hypocrisy in other people who do not share their political beliefs.
Some things are constant, though, no matter how much technology changes the way humans interact. The core of those transactions has always been and will always be trust -- that people are who they claim to be and that what they say, whether we agree with it or want to argue about it, honestly represents what they think and believe. Plagiarism is not just the theft of another person's words. It is the theft of that trust.
Plagiarism can seem like a tricky subject if you get into the minutia, and the Internet will likely make the arguments about it even more complicated. But I think most people have a good grasp of what it is and isn't. Some things are meant to be common property, passed along and added to -- folk songs, for instance, and jokes; nobody will accuse you of being a plagiarist if you tell a "guy walks into a bar" joke without confessing you just heard it from Uncle Bruce two hours ago. One politician borrowing the phraseology of promises from another politician does not count (as several wits have observed, borrowing from each other, how many ways are there to say nothing?).
But you do not claim as your own large chunks of something that was created by someone else. There are few things more terrifying that staring at blank space and knowing that you have to fill it. No matter how awful the stuff we fill it with, we at least get to put our names on it for all of history to remember. That is drummed into us over and over again when we seek a journalism degree, which is the degree Tim Goeglein pursued in college. That is more relevant than his politics.