Christopher Hitchens and Vanity Fair get the Connie Chung Award for May. “Thanks for your help,” read the letter inserted in my complimentary copy of the May issue of Vanity Fair. It seemed like a polite gesture, a pat on the head for sharing my research (published and unpublished) on plagiarism. The irony—if you can call it that—is that nowhere in Christopher Hitchens’ May column on plagiarism does he acknowledge my work.
About a month before the May issue appeared, I received a call from Vanity Fair‘s fact-checker, Walter Owen. He said Christopher Hitchens would be quoting from my 1994 book, The Martin Luther King, Jr., Plagiarism Story, for his May column, and he wondered whether I would, one, confirm certain parallel passages that I had culled from King’s papers and which Mr. Hitchens planned to quote in his column; two, confirm the title of King’s paper analyzed on page 91 of my book, which Mr. Hitchens wanted to cite; and three, provide the full name of the source that King had plagiarized in this essay.
I remember the call well, for it was nearly five o’clock in the afternoon and I was running late for an engagement. But I canceled my dinner plans, took Mr. Owen’s number, dug out my files and a copy of my book, and called him back with the information as requested. When I received my comp for “services rendered,” I phoned Mr. Owen to find out what had happened to Mr. Hitchens’ reference to me and my research. He said he didn’t know but that he would find out.
Now, there are a variety of creative ways in which Vanity Fair could have handled this situation. It could have reveled in the irony of one of its columnists stealing material for an article about theft. It could have apologized forthwith, explaining that a mad Turk in the office had gone on a rampage, excising at random Greek names from the May copy. Or it could have promised to correct the omission in the next issue. In other words. Vanity Fair had ample time and opportunity to “explain” the “oversight,” but instead it chose to lie about the matter.
According to Walter Owen, Vanity Fair‘s executive editor Elise O’Shaughnessy stated that Mr. Hitchens had no obligation to cite me and my research, for my information was “general knowledge,” and, after all, “Mr. Hitchens’ column is not an academic work with footnotes.” “General knowledge” is the stuff of encyclopedias and almanacs, not of published research in monographs. If the evidence for King’s plagiarisms were general knowledge, Mr. Hitchens would not have consulted my book in the first place. Mr. Hitchens says that Arianna Huffington did not acquire by transcendental means the information she stole for her biography of Picasso, and the same holds true for the examples of King’s plagiarisms that Mr. Hitchens cites in his column.
Moreover, if Ms. O’Shaughnessy had actually read Mr. Hitchens’ column, she would have known that literary theft most often occurs in expositions without footnotes, as in speeches, novels, newspapers, and magazines. Joe Biden, Alex Haley, Molly Ivins, and David Leavitt all plagiarized in the context of nonacademic work.
By refusing to cite his sources, Mr. Hitchens gave his readers the impression that not only did he have King’s student papers at his elbow, as well as copies of the works which served as King’s sources, but that he had also done what I had to do throughout my four years of writing on the King plagiarism story: spend hours poring over original documents.
Mr. Hitchens ends his column with a challenge to his readers: to find any pilfered passages in his article on pilfering. Well, as Mr. Hitchens reportedly said when he caught Taki lifting a phrase from an article by Norman Podhoretz, “Gotcha!”