In our last couple of postings, we’ve pondered the career of Chris Hedges, the self-righteous New York Times journalist turned shrill anti-American polemicist.
What we haven’t touched on yet, however, is a bombshell that hit Hedges’s career in June of last year. In an extensive, carefully researched article in The New Republic, Christopher Ketcham showed that Hedges had “a history of lifting material from other writers that goes back at least to his first book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, published in 2002.”
First, Ketcham told about a piece Hedges had submitted to Harper’s in 2010 that had turned out to contain several instances of “flat-out plagiarism” from a series of articles by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Matt Katz. When confronted about the similarities, Hedges said he had secured Katz’s permission to borrow from his work; but this turned out to be a lie. A Harper’s fact-checker said that Hedges’s stealing was “one of the worst things I’d ever seen as a fact-checker at the magazine. And it was endemic throughout the piece.” When the fact checker spoke with Hedges, moreover, the latter “was very unhelpful from the beginning, and very aggressive” and tried to “intimidate” him. The fact-checker told Ketcham: “Not only was the plagiarism more egregious than I had seen before, but it was shocking how unapologetic Hedges was when it was put in his face. He got very heavy-handed about it.”
Ketcham summed it up as follows: “A leading moralist of the left…had now been caught plagiarizing at one of the oldest magazines of the left.”
But the Harper’s piece, it turned out, was only the tip of the iceberg. Passages in Hedges’s book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which is revered on the left, proved to contain slightly altered passages from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. When a Texas professor brought this to Hedges’s attention, Hedges was, in his words, “dismissive and belittling” – just as he’d been with that Harper’s fact-checker.
There was more: Hedges stole several passages from a Harper’s essay by Petra Bartosiewicz for a Truthdig item; another piece he wrote for Truthdig included a passage about George Orwell and Aldous Huxley that was lifted almost word-for-word out of a work by Neil Postman. (When editors at Salon, where Ketcham’s piece was originally scheduled to run, challenged the editor of Truthdig about all these clear instances of plagiarism, the latter, instead of addressing the alarming facts, accused Salon and Ketcham of trying to damage the reputations of Truthdig and Hedges for “commercial” reasons.) Hedges even stole material from a piece on climate change by fellow Nation writer Naomi Klein. Presented with all these examples of extensive copying, a journalism-school ethics expert told Ketcham they were obviously not just instances of “inadvertent plagiarism…but carefully thought out plagiarism.”
Hedges, as we’ve seen, represents himself as a media outsider and a lone, fearless voice of truth. Yet Ketcham’s revelations about his serial plagiarism utterly decimated his right to pose as a man of truth. Any ordinary journalist who’d been found guilty of such extensive appropriation of other people’s words would’ve been fired on the spot by any reputable media entity. Yet Hedges’s plagiarism has been shrugged off by The Nation, by Truthdig, and by every other place he writes for.
And that’s not all: Ketchum’s article, as he notes, “first took shape as an investigation for The American Prospect and then for Salon, both of which eventually declined to publish it.” Why? One suspects that neither of those left-wing outlets wanted to cross Hedges. So much for him being a brave and solitary anti-establishment voice of truth – on the contrary, he’s a star in the crown of the left-wing media establishment, which plainly doesn’t care whether he’s an honest man or a thief, so long as he’s ideologically on point.
Oh well. At least a writer for The Weekly Standard got it, calling Ketchum’s exposé “so detailed, so voluminous, so explicitly damning, that it is difficult to see how any but the most credulous members of the cult can ever take Hedges seriously again.” The Standard writer also lamented the indifference of the editors of The Nation and Hedges’s other outlets to Hedges’s transgressions:
….plagiarism ought to be a capital offense in journalism. It is surely a kind of psychic disturbance in print. Whatever impels writers to steal language from other writers, and publish it as their own, also makes them vulnerable to discovery. Hedges’s demons, which seem so obvious on the page, clearly represent something deeper than politics. The last thing serial plagiarists need is editors willing, in the name of ideology, to ignore their plagiarism.