By Casey Bukro
Politicians are a notoriously slippery tribe. Almost by definition they are seen as shifty and two-faced. A 2013 poll found Congress less popular than cockroaches and traffic jams.
So what explains the umbrage over Melania Trump’s warmup speech at the Republican National Convention, extolling Trump family values and virtues of her husband, Donald, the Republican nominee for president?
“From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect,” said Trump to warm applause.
By the next day, political writers were pointing out that passage and others were almost exactly what First Lady Michelle Obama said at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
“Plagiarism,” declared David Brooks, New York Times political columnist, during PBS-National Public Radio convention coverage. Others called it a “ripoff” or more politely “borrowing” or “cribbing.”
From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.
Trump told NPR that she wrote the speech herself “with as little help as possible.”
The world is awash with political writers and commentators and does not need another. My brief is journalism ethics, which considers plagiarism a firing offense. Words are sacred in journalism, and journalism ethics demands giving credit for the work of others.
But politics is not journalism.
Long ago while working for the Chicago Tribune, I noticed that a speech given by a Chicago city hall official was almost exactly the same given earlier by another official. I wrote a story about that word theft. The word thief called me and said he saw no problem with what he did.
Journalists and politicians view the use of words differently. One might be trying to explain, the other might be trying to exhort. In either case, there are hacks and there are maestros. The best can inform or change public opinion. The worst see words as harmless things that tumble from our lips or fingertips.
Trying to find a politician’s code of ethics, I found none. Wikipedia states that “so called political realists argue that ethics has no place in politics. If politicians are to be effective in the real world, hey cannot be bound by moral rules. They have to pursue the national interest.”
This is not generally the way journalists see it. Their reactions to the Trump speech ranged from stern to humorous.
The New York Times offered a side-by-side comparison of the speeches by Trump and Obama, saying questions over Trump’s speech “set off finger-pointing.”
Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
CNBC.com reported “looks like Melania Trump really did rip off Michelle Obama’s speech,” then toned it down later to say Trump was accused of plagiarism.
Other publications pointed out that accusations of plagiarism are fairly common in political speeches.
Farida Fawzy in CNN.com listed 10 political figures, foreign and domestic, who have been accused of plagiarism, beginning with Vice President Joe Biden, who was a 1988 presidential candidate. He was accused of mimicking a speech by a British Labor Party figure and copying parts of speeches by Humbert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.
Even President Obama gets mentioned; he admits to trading ideas with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
Fortune.com ran its own list of political plagiarism offenders, while observing that “talent borrows, but genius steals.”
Taking a humorous slant, Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune filled her column with every memorable quote she could think of, including “I have a dream,” as examples of what Melania Trump really meant to say.
Schmich ended her column by writing: “And I’ll leave you with this completely unoriginal thought: When someone else finds better words than you can find to say what you mean, spare yourself some pain. Remember to attribute. Use quotation marks. Heed my advice, and you shall overcome.”
Their integrity, compassion and intelligence reflects to this day on me and for my love of family and America.
Also on the humorous side, the New York Daily News described Trump as hip by borrowing a lyric or two from Rick Astley’s 1987 song, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” She “rickrolled” the Cleveland convention audience, said reporter Jessica Schladebeck, referring to the 1987 pop hit. Unlabeled links to the song’s music video are a popular internet prank.
“He will never, ever give up,” said Trump, referring to her husband in the manner of the Astley song. “And, most importantly he will never, ever let you down.”
Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke said apparent plagiarism was one part of a truly bizarre and disturbing day at the convention. It was mean-spirited, occasionally unhinged and angry, he said.
“Trump’s fan won’t care,” Huppke wrote. “But the people he needs to win the presidency will, because they know that nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
David A. Graham, a staff writer at the Atlantic, saw it this way: “As the old political axion goes, it’s not the crime but the cover-up. The plagiarism is a strange unforced error, but how many voters really care about Melania Trump borrowing a few sentences? With a quick apology, the story might fade quickly. But the Trump campaign’s insistent denials are taking some of the wind out of an otherwise successful speech that was the high point of an otherwise inconsistent first night in Cleveland.”
After two days of refusing to admit fault, Donald Trump’s campaign released a letter from a speech writer who apologized for inadvertently lifting parts of Mrs. Obama’s speech while working with Melania on a draft of her remarks.
He will never, ever give up. And, most importantly he will never, ever let you down.
Scholars might tend to step back and look at the Melania Trump plagiarism ruckus in a more dispassionate way, as part of the national learning process. A scholar like Philip J. Auter, professor of communication at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Plagiarism happens, wrote Auter in an email.
“If they were in my class, they would have failed the paper (speech), and probably the class. However, society (and the internet) have generally made it easier and easier to borrow, appropriate, accidentally copy others’ work with little or no consequence – unless they are a famous person (usually a politician) whose views you happen to oppose.
“In my several decades in higher ed and observing teaching in K-12, I’ve noticed that many in teaching (and administration?) have erred on the side of giving the student a second and third and fourth and fifth chance — rather than hurting their self esteem. This does not help.”
Veterans of the political campaign trails point out that speeches typically are rigorously vetted these days to guard against errors or embarrassments. That appeared to be lacking in Melania Trump’s speech. Something bad can happen.
“But every time it’s done, it’s a rookie PR move that is almost always NOT the speaker’s fault” said Auter. “Rather the fault often lies in a junior staff of writers that are not used to vetting and offering attribution — but are more used to copying and pasting often un-referenced memes onto their Facebook page.
“Communication is important. PR, advertising, speech, organizational, group and mass comm at this level benefit from management by trained, experienced people. (So consider hiring a bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D. graduate in communication.)”
Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.