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Colleague Mike Riggs has already noted a few wrinkles in the Maureen DowdJosh Marshall plagiarism incident.

Putting it bluntly, Riggs says: “Dowd stole some shit and admitted it.” Fair enough.

In Slate, Jack Shafer has an uncharacteristically mellow view of the proceedings. After chiding, “Bad, Dowd, bad—deserving of hard time in a pillory!,” Shafer proceeds to exonerate the columnist—Dowd “almost sets things right,” he says, a conclusion the media critic arrives at through six-point reasoning:

  1. She responded promptly to the charge of plagiarism when confronted by the Huffington Post and Politico. (Many plagiarists go into hiding or deny getting material from other sources.)
  2. She and her paper quickly amended her column and published a correction (although the correction is a little soft for my taste).
  3. Her explanation of how the plagiarism happened seems plausible—if a tad incomplete.
  4. She’s not yet used the explanation as an excuse, nor has she said it’s “time to move on.”
  5. She’snotyetprotested that her lifting wasn’t plagiarism.
  6. She’s taking her lumps and not whining about it.

Taking these points one by one:

1. Two of the most highly trafficked politics and commentary sites rub your nose in your own literary pilfering. What do you do: Retire to your Georgetown manse and burnish your Pulitzer, or acknowledge the obvious?

2. Could Times spokesperson Diane McNulty possibly have been squishier in her apologia? McNulty writes: “There is no need to do anything further since there is no allegation, hint or anything else from Marshall that this was anything but an error.” Does the Times really need Marshall to come knocking before they force Dowd to grovel?

3. OK.

4. This smacks of a Chris Rock sketch. Regardless, Dowd deserves no props on this count.

5. Ditto, but OK.

6. Still got a job, check. Still got a column, check. Plenty of heavyweights coming to her defense, check. Them’s some pretty meager lumps.

A major point that Shafer misses is the question of medium. When a book plagiarizes another book, or a print publication plagiarizes a book, reaction is likely to come slowly and by narrow avenues. When one of the most-read columnists in the country cribs from one of the most-read bloggers in the country, well, that’s a different story: backlash is likely to come quickly and from all sides. Leaving the cribber on the defensive, and with little equivocal recourse.

All of which sidesteps one of the most troubling points: How often has Dowd done this exact thing before?

A final point: Shafer apparently misunderstands the purpose of a pillory. Pillorying a writer isn’t the equivalent of slapping him or her on the wrist—it’s a full-on public humiliation (see above), after which the writer’s reputation is tarnished forever. Seditious pamphleteering, Papism, sexual deviancy—these were the crimes that merited a good pillorying back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Far be it from me to recommend such for Dowd. But let’s at least be consistent in our hyperbole.

Illustration above: “Defoe in the Pillory,” engraving by J.C. Armytage, 1868.