Did syndicated columnist Cal Thomas plagiarize sections of a New York Times story for his latest column?
Thomas, who admits he drew information from the story for his work, stopped short of admitting plagiarism. But he said late today through his syndication outlet that he should have cited the Times as a source.
Meanwhile, at least one newspaper editor who regularly runs Thomas' column spiked the piece and said he may not run Thomas' column again.
"If it were my decision, I would not run him anymore. I think he is a hypocrite," said Carroll Wilson, managing editor of the Temple Daily Telegram in Temple, Texas, which has run Thomas' column for four years. "It is not my decision to make, it is my publisher, who is out sick today. I am going to discuss it with her."
Contacted by Media Matters earlier today, Thomas said: "It's ludicrous, I know a lot of people are out to, they would love to bring down conservatives, but come on. I think most people would say I have an exemplary record."
Wilson said he had planned to run the February 23 column in today's paper, but held off after noticing parts of it looked similar to a February 16 Times story by Binyamin Applebaum on the government value of life.
The Thomas column has so far run in several other papers, including the Washington Examiner and the Miami Herald.
Wilson first drew attention to the situation today with a note to the website Romenesko that said:
Has anyone else pointed out that Cal Thomas' recent column on the price put on a human life is essentially plagiarized from The New York Times? The Times had a story on this subject with wording Thomas has usurped. We were planning to run the column tomorrow. That column was spiked, and I will be looking very closely at every Cal Thomas column in the future, judging his work on a case-by-case basis.
Romenesko posted three paragraphs from Thomas' column and three from the Times' story that Wilson contends are similar enough to warrant scrutiny.
NEW YORK TIMES (February 16)
The Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $9.1 million last year in proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. The agency used numbers as low as $6.8 million during the George W. Bush administration.
The Food and Drug Administration declared that life was worth $7.9 million last year, up from $5 million in 2008, in proposing warning labels on cigarette packages featuring images of cancer victims.
The Transportation Department has used values of around $6 million to justify recent decisions to impose regulations that the Bush administration had rejected as too expensive, like requiring stronger roofs on cars.
CAL THOMAS (February 24)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the value of a human life at $9.1 million. It reached this determination while proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. During the Bush administration, EPA calculated our value at $6.8 million. Was the difference in price caused by inflation? The EPA didn't say.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) arrived at its own figure for the value of an American life. It says each life is worth $7.9 million. That, too, is an increase from the $5 million value FDA had assigned each human American life in 2008. The agency calculated our value while proposing new and tougher warning labels on cigarettes that include pictures of cancer victims.
The Transportation Department -- yes, Transportation -- put our worth at $6 million while seeking to justify recent decisions to impose regulations the Bush administration had rejected as too costly, such as stronger roofs on cars.
Tom Fiedler, former editor of the Miami Herald and Dean of the College of Communication at Boston University, said the paragraphs are similar enough to warrant concern.
"I have to say I applaud the editor at the Temple Daily Telegram for making what seems to be a clean catch with this one," Fiedler said. "Had it been simply a case of taking a set of facts that were widely available and repeating them in declarative sentences, it gets a pass.
"But in this case, what Cal Thomas clearly has done is picked it up without crediting the reporter's work. That was inappropriate if not a case of plagiarism. It certainly exceeded what would be borrowing information that is out in the common sphere. If a student turned something like this in and a faculty member caught it, that student would have gotten an F on that paper and a warning that repeating would mean dismissal."
Thomas, who is syndicated by Tribune Media Services, said he did read the Times' story and drew information from it, but did not consider that plagiarism.
"Why would I be so stupid being the most widely syndicated columnist in America to plagiarize something from the front page of The New York Times. I might as well go out and have an affair with someone running a video camera on me. You don't think I'm that stupid, do you?"
Wilson said he would speak to Thomas, but did not believe it would change his mind.
"I see Cal Thomas has essentially stolen it," Wilson said of the story. "I can't believe the two of them had the same idea at the same time. I felt insulted by the fact that he took it, took the idea and didn't give any credit for it. I just think that's wrong. Plagiarism is a sin against journalism and Cal Thomas likes to talk about sin."
New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy declined comment to Media Matters on Friday.
Asked earlier today if he should have at least mentioned getting the information from the Times, Thomas said:
"No, not unless I was quoting broad sections of it. We all read stuff all the time from various sources, but if you get something that is original work, then yeah. But this wasn't original stuff, and plus there were government documents that had been out there for anyone to see. Of course, I got it from the Times story, but they had links on their Web page to the government documents."
But when contacted this afternoon, Tribune Media Services Managing Editor Mary Elson issued the following statement saying Thomas agreed he should have credited the Times:
Tribune Media Services is aware of a charge by a Texas newspaper editor that Cal Thomas plagiarized passages of a New York Times story about government bodies placing a monetary value on human life. Thomas says he did not feel that a citation was necessary given that the passages largely contained government figures that are available elsewhere. Upon further review, however, Thomas agrees that the New York Times story should have been cited as the source for a column conveying his own opinions on the issue. TMS acknowledges that its editing process did not, as it normally would, turn up the connection to the Times as the original source. If it had, the Times would have received attribution in the column. Thomas has a long, distinguished career in journalism and has operated with utmost integrity and high standards. No such charges have ever before been made against Thomas, and we see no indication that Thomas had any intent to use the material in an unauthorized fashion.