Peter Winkler sent me an e-mail about a couple posts he’s got up on the process of writing reviews. In the first one, he points to similarities between the Salon and Slate reviews of the TV show 7th Heaven. In it, he finds a couple of similar quotes from both reviews. Both reviews mention that Steven Collins plays his role with a wink or a smirk, and both say the show, about a church reverend, “rarely mentions Jesus.”
Now I wouldn’t say these apparently stolen bits are special gems, but if I was a teacher and had two students turn in papers with this many similarities, I might bring them to the office for a bit of a talking to. Winkler’s claim is that these reviewers aren’t doing their job, but rather plagiarizing from the press kit to create the review.
As it happens, I’m working on a review right now, and the publisher did indeed include a press kit with my review copy. I haven’t looked at it until just this moment, but I thought it would be interesting to see if I can spot similar “coincidences” between this stuff and my yet-unfinished review. Nope. There might be a similar word or two, but once you put even two or three words together, there’s nothing. I’d say Winkler may be right.
A secondary question: is what these reviewers are doing wrong? Is it plagiarism? From the publicist’s perspective, absolutely not — the press kit gives out exactly the information s/he wants disseminated about the movie. But shouldn’t the reviewer take pains to indicate that this information came from the press kit? Shouldn’t reviewers at least put this material in quotation marks? I think Winkler’s got a point here.
In a second post, Winkler expresses similar cynicism about Ben Cosgrove’s review of The Devil’s Doctor in Salon. This time, however, Winkler can’t produce the goods. While he’s suspicious about a couple of key phrases, he doesn’t have evidence that they actually came from the press kit. Cosgrove himself very gently calls Winkler on it in the comments.
I think Winkler needs to apologize to Cosgrove. While you might think a couple of phrases in someone’s review seem rather hacked, there’s a long way from writing from the press kit to writing a couple of phrases that might be appropriate for “dust jacket flapdoodles.” Honestly, I think it’s a worse sin to conscientiously avoid writing stuff that publishers might want to use on their dust jackets. Publishers are going to take whatever you write out of context, so why not just try to write a good review?
But let’s assume all Winkler’s accusations are on target. Where does this fall on the scale of plagiarism? We’re certainly not talking about Kaavya Viswanathan levels here. If what Viswanathan did rates a 7 or an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is completely original work and 10 is just changing the author name, I’d say we’re talking about a 2 or a 3. Definitely not good stuff, a little irresponsible, and worth a mention, but still, we’ve got much bigger concerns with the media’s performance lately, like parroting Bush’s party line, uncritically quoting global warming “skeptics,” and giving equal time to creationists in the evolution “debate.”