Review — or press kit summary?

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.”

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4 Responses to Review — or press kit summary?

  1. Doug Hoffman says:

    What scares me is the idea that a whole phrase can pop into your work accidentally.

    I did this once — ended a piece with a five-word sentence that turned out to be pinched.

    It took me about an hour or two to figure out just WHY I liked that sentence so much — I had read it a few weeks ago in a short story I had read. Needless to say, I went back into the blog guts and excised the sentence, but it was still a close brush (too close for comfort).

    Off topic — is state-dependent memory still considered a real phenomenon, or has it been debunked? This came up over at my place.

  2. dave says:

    In my brief searchings around the internet, I haven’t been able to come up with any evidence that it has. Greta says that she thinks it’s a pretty small effect.

    For those of you following along at home, state dependent memory is the idea that you remember things better if you’re in the same mental state as when you learned it: in the same room, drunk or sober, sad or happy, etc.

  3. Dear Dave:

    Thanks for discussing my thoughts on this on your blog.

    In my post about Ben Cosgrove’s review, I expressed my suspicions about whether certain points in his review may have come from the publisher’s preskit or the book’s dustjacket. It wasn’t a hard conclusion.

    And Ben Cosgrove emailed me about the post. I asked, nay, I urged him to post his email as a comment to my blog, wherein he wrote:

    “your critique was thoughtful (and funny, which is unbelievably rare), and on
    reflection I have to admit that, had I read my own review without knowing anything
    about the reviewer, I might very well have had a similar reaction.

    Anyway, that’s all. Just wanted to say thanks for the insightful comments…”

    He set the record straight and I was happy to have his correction appended to my post. Given that, I don’t think an apology is necessary, though I would have done so if asked.

    Is the act of taking one’s opinions from press releases or presskits as serious as Viswanathan’s plagiarism? Well, to me it is. It corrupts the function of critics to be an independent voice on which consumers rely.

    Readers looking for an informed opinion have the right to be able to assume what they are reading are the thoughts of the reviewer, not a repackaged press release.

    Which, by the way, is the issue underlying the whole Judy Miller media lapdog issue.

    Do you know how many stories on broadcast news shows are VNRs (video news releases) that are packaged by corporate pr agencies?
    Remember Armstrong Williams and other columnists taking money to be a conduit for Bush administration propaganda?

    Is the integrity of a review of a tv show as important as our foreign policy in a time of war? Of course not, but I think there is time enough for us to be able to contend with both issues. This corruption of journalistic integrity isn’t limited merely to ephemeral writing about tv shows.

    Yours,
    Peter L. Winkler

  4. dave says:

    Peter,

    When you’re talking about one word — “cheesy” or “obscure,” it’s hard to level a charge of plagiarism. When you can’t even provide the documents that were allegedly plagiarized, it’s downright impossible. All you’ve got in the case of your first post is two similar sentences, and I give you the benefit of the doubt there. In the second post, you’ve got absolutely nothing. You should apologize.

    In regards to whether, assuming your accusations are true, this is more or less significant than other recent problems with the press, consider this:

    What Susan Miller did is trade access for accountability. In order to get interviews with Bush insiders, she agreed to parrot the party line. There was no such quid pro quo in your examples: publishers will give access even to the lowliest bloggers. In the case of the evolution versus ID “debate,” the press is pandering to a fringe group and accepting their rantings as “science,” when no real scientist in the field accepts it. You might as well ask an astrologer what she thinks is going to happen to interest rates.

    What the reviewers did, at worst, is lazy — it’s not especially deceitful.

    The media prints press releases as “news” all the time. In many cases, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, if the choice is not to report on something at all or to publish a press release, I’d prefer more information to less. But when a news organization has an army of reporters in Washington and only sees fit to print the party line, yes, I’ve got a problem with that.

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