• U.S.

Steal This Column!

5 minute read
Michael Kinsley

As the scythe of scandal continues to cut off the careers and other vital parts of reporters and editors at the nation’s major newspapers, those of us who peddle opinions for a living rather than facts are starting to get nervous. When will the spotlight turn on us? Every time another malefactor is exposed, we feel a chill and think we hear the tumbrels roll. We know in our hearts that we are uniquely vulnerable.

We opinionistas are a diverse bunch: newspaper editorial writers draped in cardigan sweaters and clutching pipes, columnists dictating a few trenchant paragraphs on cell phones while striding self-importantly through Reagan National Airport, troll-like TV commentators with ill-fitting teeth, fat and angry radio talk-show hosts … We all agree on very little. But we share a common bewilderment about the venom attached to these recent accusations of plagiarism and fabrication.

What we don’t get is this: If you’re not supposed to take it from someone else and you’re not supposed to make it up yourself, where are you supposed to get it? From this perspective, reporters have it easy. There is always something new to report. Life itself supplies a regular stream of events–roughly 3.2 billion an hour, according to scientists. With the advent of computers, it has become a simple matter to rank all events in order of their suitability as news, using the famous Gannett scale, developed by the well-known newspaper chain and involving such factors as the impact of an event on other events, the number of proper names that are difficult to spell (a negative factor) and the involvement of people from diverse backgrounds (a plus, obviously).

But pity the opinionmeister! Opinions don’t flare and quickly die like fireworks. Opinions come and stay, leaving little room for new ones. There are only five opinions you can have about abortion, according to a report prepared for the Opinion League of America. There are only two possible opinions (sometimes characterized as yes and no) on capital punishment, just one on matters implicating the American flag. Under these circumstances, it would be annoying to be told that it is unacceptable for an opinion to be used more than once. Worse than annoying, it would be wasteful. Call it plagiarism if you like; we prefer to think of it as recycling. Facts are like air: they can be polluted, but there is no danger that we will actually run out of the stuff. Opinions, by contrast, are like water or oil: the danger of running out is real.

A confession: I have often lifted opinions from others, even from other members of the Opinion League itself. On the other hand, I have also invented opinions out of whole cloth. Before the ethics cops come to arrest me, let me point out one of the wonderful things about opinions: people who produce them like to have them stolen! Facts are very different in this regard. Let’s say I find out and report that Attorney General John Ashcroft was on the golf course on 9/11 and finished the last three holes before helicoptering back to his office to start reading the Constitution, looking for loopholes. And suppose you publish a news story containing the same information, without crediting me. I would feel violated and accuse you of plagiarism. But suppose I express the opinion that Ashcroft is the finest Attorney General since John Mitchell. This certainly would be an original viewpoint. And suppose you echo it, even without credit. That is not plagiarism, that is influence! And I am not insulted, I am flattered. Furthermore, suppose I make up that story about the Attorney General, as indeed I did. A total fabrication, just like the alleged Gannett scale. I would be in trouble if I actually presented it as fact. On the other hand, if I dream up an equally far-fetched opinion about Ashcroft, people are likely to declare pompously that they will defend to the death my right to possess it.

At a time when the U.S. faces an imminent flood of cheap foreign opinion (whose reasoning tends to break down at the first turn in the argument), it is vital for this country to protect opinion journalism from the jihad sweeping through the newsroom full of factniks down the hall. For this reason, the Opinion League of America has voted to merge with our traditional rivals, the International Brotherhood of Blowhards and Allied Trades. With some opinion production being outsourced to places like Bangladesh, where children as young as 6 or 7 spend 50 or more hours a week expressing views on everything from international finance to local school-board elections, we need the Blowhards, and they need us. Together we will fight to protect the sacred right of opinion professionals to make up their opinions, steal them from others and do whatever else may be necessary to guarantee that Americans will continue to enjoy the finest opinions in the world.

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