Did Jill Abramson Plagiarize Ian Milhiser?

Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, has an article in the current issue of New York making the case for the impeachment of Clarence Thomas. I don’t have any problems with the substance of the piece, though I don’t think Abramson breaks much new ground on the Thomas sexual harassment front or with respect to the fact that Thomas committed perjury in his Senate confirmation hearings. (Having co-authored, with Jane Mayer, the book on Thomas and Anita Hill, Abramson knows this case better than almost anyone.)

My problem is that Abramson seems to have lifted, sometimes word-for-word, an extended passage from a October 2016 blog post by Ian Milhiser.

Here is Milhiser:

He [Clarence Thomas] joined the majority decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, holding for the first time that an employer’s religious objections can trump the rights of their women employees. And, in one of the most under-reported decisions of the last several years, he cast the key fifth vote to hobble the federal prohibition on sexual harassment in the workplace.

In Vance v. Ball State University, a 5–4 Supreme Court redefined the word “supervisor” such that it means virtually nothing in many modern workplaces. Under Vance, a person’s boss only counts as their “supervisor” if they have the authority to make a “significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”

One problem with this decision is that modern workplaces often vest the power to make such changes in employment status in a distant HR office, even though the employee’s real boss wields tremendous power over them.

Here is Abramson:

He joined the majority decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, holding that an employer’s religious objections can override the rights of its women employees.

And, in one of the most underreported decisions of the last several years, Thomas cast the key fifth vote to hobble the federal prohibition on harassment in the workplace. The 5-4 decision in 2013’s Vance v. Ball State University tightened the definition of who counts as a supervisor in harassment cases. The majority decision in the case said a person’s boss counts as a “supervisor” only if he or she has the authority to make a “significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.” That let a lot of people off the hook. In many modern workplaces, the only “supervisors” with those powers are far away in HR offices, not the hands-on boss who may be making a worker’s life a living hell.

The number of direct repetitions—of words, phrases, and sentences—is sizable. The faint rewording of other passages is plain. The choice of quotations from and description of the Ball State case, the set-up and syntax of the whole section, the conceptual choices (Thomas “cast the key fifth vote,” which Abramson borrows from Milhiser in order to suggest, wrongly, that Thomas was somehow the last vote cobbled together by the conservative majority, or to suggest, improbably, that if Thomas had not been approved by the Senate, a more liberal justice would have been nominated in his place and, 15 years later, would have cast a different vote) and conceptual ordering: Abramson’s passage mimics Milhiser’s to a high degree.

Abramson is not a rookie reporter. She’s one of the giants of contemporary journalism.

In case the editors at New York revise the web version of the article (it appears in the print version of the February 19 issue of the magazine), here are a screen shot of the relevant section in Abramson’s piece and three screen shots of the relevant sections from Milhiser’s.

Update (1 pm)

I just remembered that Abramson was first made managing editor in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, which Bill Keller, who was made editor after Howell Raines was forced to resign over the scandal, said influenced his desire to change the Times culture. Part of that change involved bringing on Abramson as managing editor.

After some googling, I found that while she was managing editor, Abramson had to deal with at least two plagiarism incidents involving reporters at the Times. In the first incident, which seems to have involved less outright copying without attribution than Abramson utilizes in her New York piece, Abramson admitted the accusation of plagiarism that had been leveled against the Times reporter:

Did Barrionuevo commit plagiarism?

“Yes,” says Abramson. “I think when you take material almost word-for-word and don’t credit it, it is.”

In the second incident, she was more circumspect:

It appears that Alexei did not fully understand Times policy of not using wire boilerplate and giving credit when we do make use of such material. As I mentioned to you, other papers do permit unattributed use of such material. He should not have inserted wire material into his Times coverage without attribution.

That said, because the new examples do not involve many words or an original thought, the transgression does not seem to be as serious as the first instance on paco.

I’ll leave it to readers to adjudicate which of these two cases is more relevant to what Abramson did in this New York article. Either way, she seems to have violated the very policies she upheld while she was an editor at the Times. And in a link-laden piece like this, she should, minimally, have credited and linked to Milhiser.

Update (February 20)

As I expected they would do, New York has slightly addressed the problem, claiming it was due to an editing error, while skirting the larger question of what Abramson did.

In Abramson’s original piece, there were two sentences—”He joined” and “And, in one of the most underreported…”—that were lifted almost verbatim from Milhiser’s post. In their fix, New York doesn’t address the first sentence at all but does this with the second sentence:

And, as Think Progress noted, “in one of the most underreported decisions of the last several years, Thomas cast the key fifth vote to hobble the federal prohibition on harassment in the workplace.”*

And if you follow the asterisk, you’ll find this at the bottom of the piece:

*Due to an editing error, the original version failed to attribute this quoted sentence to its author.

So the magazine doesn’t address the almost verbatim lifting in the first sentence or the heavy reliance on Milhiser’s setup and usage and quotations throughout Abramson’s description of the Ball State case. It also claims that the failure to acknowledge Milhiser in the sentence that was so idiosyncratic in its usage that no one could claim it wasn’t lifted from Milhiser, that that failure to attribute was due to an editing error.

Here are the two screenshots of the changes.


  1. Hal Ginsberg February 19, 2018 at 11:35 am | #

    Abramson may be a well-known and highly reputed journalist. But, as far as I’m concerned, she cemented her status as a hack in her absurd column during the 2016 primaries contending that Hillary Clinton is “fundamentally honest and trustworthy.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/28/hillary-clinton-honest-transparency-jill-abramson

    • jibalt February 7, 2019 at 1:06 pm | #

      Hillary Clinton is, in fact fundamentally honest and trustworthy. And even if you disagree with that assessment, it doesn’t establish that the person saying it is a hack. OTOH, your introduction of “what about Hillary?” into this discussion of plagiarism definitely establishes you as a hack,

  2. John K. Wilson February 19, 2018 at 12:03 pm | #

    It may be some unoriginal writing, but I don’t think it quite meets the standard of plagiarism. In legal writing, it’s very common for descriptions of Supreme Court rulings to use similar language and the same quotes, because it’s a summary of legal doctrine. An odd word like “hobble” suggests that Abramson may have originally grabbed it from Milhiser (perhaps not realizing that she hadn’t re-written it), but this is more sloppy work than a serious case of plagiarism. The final lines summarizing their points are completely different writing, even though they’re both making the same point. It’s valuable to point this out, but I don’t think this is plagiarism, although Abramson should give an explanation to her readers and give credit to Milhiser.

    • Corey Robin February 19, 2018 at 12:57 pm | #

      I think you’re wrong, John. First, Abramson is a journalist and an editor, not a legal writer. And even among journalists who cover the Court and other legal issues, there is a high degree of variation in how they characterize various cases.

      But more important, if you simply apply the same standard that Abramson applied when she was managing editor of the Times, and a case of plagiarism was pointed out to her, you’ll see that what she did puts her into more than the gray zone.

      In this one case that Abramson presided over at the Times, the rewriting (as opposed to simple copying) was greater than in her piece for New York, and the lifting was less. Yet she conceded it was plagiarism.


      There was another case that she had to deal with which she also conceded was wrong, that it violated Times policy, though she wouldn’t characterize it as plagiarism.


      • Sam's dad February 19, 2018 at 1:52 pm | #

        The only real question is, did she see and read the Ian Milhiser blogpost?

        Common sense would certainly suggest she did: the similarities are so-o-o large. She needs to be questioned. If she were to answer she has never seen the Milhiser, we would be forgiven for thinking she is probably not telling the truth, but we wouldn’t actually know. If she were to say she had seen the Milhiser piece, than we would be right to suggest, politely, that she has failed to live up to her own best standards. Probably she would admit it was a big mistake/oversight/whatever NOT to have given Mr. Milhiser a shout-out. Maybe she will do it now. I have always thought well of her, so I hope so.

    • jibalt February 7, 2019 at 1:09 pm | #

      ” completely different writing”

      That part of a text is different has no bearing on whether other parts were plagiarized.

  3. troy grant February 19, 2018 at 2:49 pm | #

    Laws are supposed to be quoted verbatim.

  4. Tom February 19, 2018 at 6:05 pm | #

    The plagiarism seems clear to me. She could just recognize she did a mistake, ask for some form of punishment to be decided by a NYT committee (e.g. 2 weeks without pay) and move on. We’ll see. Some people can own up to their mistakes better than others.

  5. P Naumann February 20, 2018 at 3:40 am | #

    Why focus on this and abandon a refocusing on Thomas’ perjury that led to and allowed in time huge impacts to so many and for so long to come. Is “Been there, done that; everybody knew; that war’s over, so what?” the response? “Women took it then even if they aren’t taking it so much now”? Speculate if you will regarding plagiarism, elicit responses, then boldly state your conclusion, but apply relative weight of significance and reconsider the abandonment. If it’s deflection, why, I wonder. You googled quite some over this, right? Chasing a b-b and dismissing the big bomb. Baffling.

    • Chris Morlock February 21, 2018 at 12:36 am | #

      I don’t think Corey is trying refocus on a simple act of plagiarism, come on. The issue is interesting, it’s a rare and candid look at how the academic class has to deal with the journalistic class and how the top news organizations don’t seem to have much accountability, especially when it comes to the actual principle involved. If Corey didn’t point this out that’s one less instance of showing people how the system works, and god knows it’s a pure mystery to almost everyone.

    • jibalt February 7, 2019 at 1:17 pm | #

      “Why focus on this”

      Because plagiarism is a serious offense, and is particularly ironic and disturbing given the context that she points out.

      “If it’s deflection, why, I wonder.”

      Simple: it isn’t one … “abandon”/”refocusing”/”deflection”/”dismissing” are strawmen of your own invention.

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