Yes, plagiarism is bad
July 19, 2016
Speechwriters agree. Let's move on.
I'm in Cleveland today, trying to size up the scene on this sunny day before the speeches tonight.
But everybody wants the head of the Professional Speechwriters Association and the editor of Vital Speeches to talk about Melania Trump's speech. And I suppose I should want to talk about Melania's speech, and I am talking about it all day, most recently to McClatchy newspapers. But everything I say sounds so obvious, at least to me. Obvious, and relatively trivial.
Naturally, professional speechwriters are eager to disassociate themselves with such a practice. I'll let some speechwriters I know speak for themselves.
Speechwriter and American University speechwriting teacher Eric Schnure recently addressed plagiarism directly with his graduate students in his speechwriting course at Johns Hopkins. He told them that during speech research it's okay to look at other politicians' websites for their stances on issues. "But," he advised them, "don't read the speeches because the temptation is so great" to use good lines you hear. And good lines stick in a writer's ear.
"I wrote speeches for 20+ years," says veteran public relations exec Cliff Gold. "There [are] nothing but bad explanations for this. Plagiarism without attribution is breaking the first commandment of speechwriting."
Indeed, the Professional Speechwriters Association has drafted and will soon vet with members a code of ethics, and a strong ban on plagiarism is among the very first tenets.
Andrew Barlow, onetime speechwriter to Texas governor Rick Perry saw two explanations: "This either a) denigrates our profession [if an actual speechwriter did this] or b) affirms our profession [if the principal took it upon herself to copy & paste text from another speech and her writing team was not allowed to fix it]. I prefer to assume it is the latter."
I think it's closer to the former. But I don't think the speechwriting profession is denigrated. Rather, I think the Trump campaign is running a communication office with insufficient supervision of inexperienced writers. For speechwriters with sensitive ears, the plagiarism wasn't the only problem with Melania Trump's speech.
"I have to admit," says veteran corporate speechwriter Laura Hunter Thomas. "I was more distracted by the Rickroll in her speech. 'He will never, ever, give up. And, most importantly, he will never, ever, let you down.' At a basic level it seems that no one who is familiar with writing a major speech gave this more than a cursory glance before loading it into the prompter."
This plagiarism scandal is a shabby little crime of communication incompetence. And in the context of a campaign so otherwise rhetorically interesting (not to say barbaric)—this just isn't the right issue to fondle all day long. Let's move on. I'm going back outside. —DM