Rick Casey: Plagiarist, Poor Journalist, Or What?

PREFACE: The Houston Chronicle has changed the online story that is now referenced by the following post, effectively whitewashing the journalistic sins of columnist Rick Casey with NO INDICATION they’ve done so. The date stamp on the current version backs up my assertion, as the original column appeared days before the stamp that column is carrying. Of course, I did keep a copy of the original column, which is quoted extensively in the post that follows, and I can share it with any interested party. I felt the need to add this note because I didn’t want someone coming back later and saying my blockquotes didn’t match the story.

A few days ago, Charles Kuffner called attention to a Washington Post article by Dan Morgan on a Texas PAC designed to help fund minority GOP candidates. It’s a fascinating, well-written and well-researched piece that does not reflect well on the PAC or on Republican U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla.

Apparently, Houston Chronicle metro/state columnist Rick Casey liked it.

So much so that he effectively rewrote the column and presented it as his own original work, save for this backhanded blanket attribution found in the fifth paragraph of Casey’s column (after he had written three paragraphs using information and ideas found in the Washington Post article and presented them as his own, giving no attribution):

The rest isn’t exactly history. But it is an amusing story, as detailed this week on the front page of The Washington Post.

He then goes on to reword multiple paragraphs from the Washington Post article — sometimes only changing a word or two of the text — again without proper attribution.

Accusations of journalistic misconduct — specifically, plagiarism, lack of attribution, and questionable ethics — should never be made lightly. But after a close textual analysis of both the Washington Post article and Casey’s Houston Chronicle article, I think those charges are valid.

In what follows, I’m going to present Casey’s article paragraph by paragraph, beginning with each of his offending paragraphs, followed by the relevant Washington Post paragraph(s), and concluding with a short comment on each.

Casey’s Paragraph 1:

Dallas businessman Marcos Rodriguez had a dream that one day black children and brown children would grow up to be Republican officeholders just like white children.

Morgan’s Paragraph 14:

American Dream PAC had an idealistic goal when it was launched in 1997 by Marcos Rodriguez, a wealthy, Dallas-based Hispanic American investor in radio stations….

Casey paraphrases Morgan’s paragraph, colorizing the language a bit, but does not give attribution to Morgan for the idea.

Casey’s Paragraph 2:

So in 1997 he established the American Dream Political Action Committee, designed to raise money to fund the campaigns of Republican candidates of color or, as he put it, “to give significant, direct financial assistance to first-rate minority GOP candidates.”

Morgan’s Paragraph 1:

When Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.) took charge of an independent political fund called American Dream PAC in 1999, he made clear that its mission was “to give significant, direct financial assistance to first-rate minority GOP candidates.”

Casey appears to use Morgan’s quotation without giving any attribution, giving the impression that Casey tracked down the quote. However, Casey verified to a third-party who emailed him at my request that the quote came from the Washington Post article.

Casey’s Paragraph 3:

At first, that’s what the PAC did. In the 1998 race, it distributed $30,000 to 12 minority candidates. That was about 30 percent of the fledgling PAC’s revenue.

Morgan’s Paragraph 16:

During the 1998 election, the PAC set up by Rodriguez contributed $30,000 (nearly a third of its revenue) to the campaigns of a dozen GOP candidates of Asian, Hispanic, Native American or black heritage.

Casey only slightly rewrites Morgan’s paragraph, uses all of Morgan’s facts, and again fails to give attribution.

Casey’s Paragraph 4 is a transition sentence that appears to be original.

Casey’s Paragraph 5 contains the columnist’s (inadequate) blanket attribution of credit to the Washington Post, after his first three substantive paragraphs used Morgan’s material with no attribution given.

Casey’s Paragraph 6:

Bonilla, who is something of a pioneer as a Hispanic Republican congressman, has had a hard time finding (these are his words) “good, solid minority candidates to expend the funds on.”

Morgan’s Paragraph 5 (relevant portion highlighted):

Bonilla, one of four Hispanic American Republicans in Congress, defends his PAC’s record of assisting minority candidates, saying, “We did the best we could.” In all, 27 minority office-seekers, predominantly Hispanic American, received money, mostly small donations. But Bonilla said it was sometimes difficult to find “good, solid minority candidates to expend the funds on.”

Casey condenses and rewords Morgan’s paragraph, with no attribution. Casey appears to use Morgan’s direct quotation, giving the impression that Casey tracked down the quote himself. My third party did not inquire about this quote, but given what we learned about the other quote as well as the similarities to Morgan’s Paragraph 5, it seems likely Casey lifted this one as well.

Casey’s Paragraph 7:

In the 2000 and 2002 elections, the PAC donated a total of $29,250 to candidates, less than 10 percent of the $318,500 the PAC took in.

Morgan’s Paragraph 18:

In 2000 and 2002, donations to federal candidates dropped to $17,750 and $11,500 respectively, a small portion of the $318,500 taken in, according to federal election records.

Casey rewrites Morgan’s paragraph only slightly (even maintaining the same sentence structure!), and uses Morgan’s facts, with no attribution given.

Casey’s Paragraphs 8 – 11:

But some of them might not have been what businessman Rodriguez pictured in his dream.

One was incumbent U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, an Anglo. Another was veteran U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, an Anglo who received $2,500 in 2002. This ranked him second only to Bonilla himself, who received a $5,000 contribution from the PAC.

At least those two had actual opponents.

Under Bonilla, the American Dream PAC also gave $1,000 to then-U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, who wasn’t seeking re-election.

Morgan’s Paragraph 19:

Recipients included several well-established nonminority lawmakers, including then-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Reps. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) and Steve Buyer (R-Ind.).

Casey expands upon the original work done by Morgan (without giving attribution) by listing dollar amounts, thus introducing the first new information in his column. However, Casey gives no indication of the source he used to obtain his figures.

Casey’s Paragraph 12 introduces figures that are not found in Morgan’s article:

But if Bonilla wasn’t so good at finding qualified minority candidates, he was good at raising money. His donors included a few donors from ethnic minorities, but also the likes of conservative angel James Leininger ($5,000) and then-Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling.

Casey gives no indication of the source he used to obtain these figures.

Casey’s Paragraph 13 is an editorial statement about Bonilla’s PAC fundraising prowess.

Casey’s Paragraph 14:

Of $228,000 in soft money raised between 1999 and the end of 2002, only $27,000 went to 17 Hispanic candidates. Of those, 16 received an average of less than $1,000 each.

Morgan’s Paragraph 21:

Of $228,500 in soft money raised between 1999 and the end of 2002, only $27,000 went to 17 Hispanic American GOP candidates running for offices in four states where such contributions are legal. Nearly half the amount, $13,000, went to a single candidate, John Sanchez, who lost his 2002 bid for governor of New Mexico to another Hispanic American, Bill Richardson (D).

Casey omits two adjectives from Morgan’s phrase but gives no attribution to Morgan, making this an egregious example of plagiarism — except, perhaps, for the fact that he doesn’t even plagiarize very well, using a figure of $228,000 instead of the $228,500 figure reported by Morgan. It seems likely Casey arrived at his average figure of less-than $1,000 per candidate by a simple calculation from Morgan’s figures. That’s the only reasonable conclusion that can be reached, since Casey does not cite any other source.

Casey’s Paragraph 15 is a transition sentence that appears to be original.

Casey’s Paragraph 16:

The American Meat Institute, for example gave $5,000. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America gave $25,000.

Morgan’s Paragraphs 23-24:

In 2002, for example, the political action committee of the American Meat Institute, representing meatpackers, contributed $10,000 to Bonilla’s personal campaign fund and $5,000 to American Dream PAC.

U.S. drug manufacturers also donated to both, and their Washington trade organization, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), contributed $25,000 in cash to the PAC’s soft money arm.

Casey appears to pull facts from Morgan’s article, but gives no indication of his source.

Casey’s Paragraphs 17-18:

If the Meat Institute, which represents meat packers, asks, “Where’s the beef?” it’s more likely referring to Bonilla’s efforts as chairman of an appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. There Bonilla has fought country-of-origin labeling requirements.

Likewise, the good pharmaceutical folks may be less worried about the color of candidates than about competition from imported drugs, which Bonilla has fought.

Morgan’s Paragraph 25:

As chairman of an appropriations subcommittee that oversees the money for the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department, Bonilla has fought proposals to ease FDA restrictions on the importation of drugs, and has sought a delay in “country of origin” labeling requirements for meat, both top priorities for the industries involved.

Casey uses all of Morgan’s facts, and only slightly rephrases his work. The italicized portion suggests that Casey lifted some text almost verbatim, with no attribution, which would make this another egregious example of plagiarism.

Casey’s Paragraph 19 is a transitional statement.

Casey’s Paragraph 20 introduces new information:

A lot went to lawyers, though it’s not clear why. Some went to book facilities at a New York hotel for the upcoming convention.

The information about the New York Hotel does not appear in Morgan’s article. Casey does not cite a source.

Casey’s Paragraph 21:

The committee’s treasurer received $119,021, but she wasn’t supposed to. She’s serving a 15-month sentence in federal prison.

Morgan’s paragraph 7:

However, Bonilla concedes that controls over the fund were lax. Last July, the political action committee’s treasurer pleaded guilty in a San Antonio federal court to embezzling $119,021 between 1999 and 2003. She was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Casey appears to take all of his facts from Morgan’s paragraph without attribution, but his rendition of the facts is misleading, since he omits the fact that she was convicted of embezzling. Casey’s version gives the impression that money was simply funneled to the treasurer, which is not what Morgan wrote.

Casey’s Paragraphs 22-23:

State parties in Maine, Delaware, Florida and Arkansas received $10,000.

Texans Against Gerrymandering (at least of the Democratic variety) received $10,000. The group set up by Rep. Joe Barton used it to buy software and draft maps for the redistricting wars.

Morgan’s Paragraphs 28-29:

Shortly before the 2000 elections, American Dream PAC transferred $90,000 to the Maine, Delaware, Florida and Arkansas Republican parties. An additional $10,000 went to Texans Against Gerrymandering, a group set up by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) to purchase software and draft maps in connection with the GOP redistricting effort.

Bonilla also directed that $5,000 be contributed to the Tom DeLay Legal Expense Trust, to help cover expenses incurred in a civil suit brought by Democrats charging money laundering and extortion in connection with DeLay’s fundraising operations. The suit was dropped in 2001.

Casey appears to take all of his facts from Morgan, without attribution. Once again, however, Casey doesn’t lift the facts accurately, since the figure contributed to the four state parties was $90,000, not $10,000. There are only slight variations in the italicized text, but again, no attribution, suggesting another blatant instance of plagiarism.

Casey’s Paragraph 24 is an editorial statement.

Casey’s Paragraph 25 (the conclusion):

Bonilla authorized $5,000 for that noble cause, the Tom DeLay Legal Expense Trust.

Morgan’s Paragraph 29:

Bonilla also directed that $5,000 be contributed to the Tom DeLay Legal Expense Trust, to help cover expenses incurred in a civil suit brought by Democrats charging money laundering and extortion in connection with DeLay’s fundraising operations….

Casey’s text differs only slightly from Morgan’s, and again uses Morgan’s facts. Also, Casey fails to give proper attribution. And that’s his conclusion.

To recap: Of Casey’s 25 paragraphs, 15 of those include variously rewritten copy of text and facts found in Morgan’s article, including direct quotations (giving the impression that Casey got those quotations and facts, not Morgan) — and at least 3 of those 15 include text that appears to be lifted directly from Morgan’s sentences, with only a word changed here and there. Only 2 of Casey’s paragraphs introduce any information not found in Morgan’s original article, although Casey does not cite his sources for that information; interestingly, in one of those two cases, the new information is used to take a shot at a conservative. The fifth paragraph gives blanket attribution to the Washington Post article for information that is to follow, without mentioning the author’s name (and after 3 paragraphs that already used information in the article referenced). The other 7 paragraphs are one-sentence paragraphs used to make transitions or editorial statements.

The Houston Chronicle recently suspended popular sports columnist Mickey Herskowitz, alleging that he recycled his past writing in recent columns. Here is the newspaper’s statement:

A Mickey Herskowitz column published in the Sunday, March 21 Chronicle was virtually identical to one he wrote for the Houston Post in 1990. This is a clear violation of journalism standards and the writer has been suspended.

Herskowitz’s column about legendary basketball coach John Wooden contained little new information and many duplicative phrases. A further examination also found other examples of short passages in Post columns that later appeared in the Chronicle.

While this is not plagiarism, it is bad form. The Chronicle believes that readers deserve original work. Columnists often draw from earlier writing, but anything previously reported or quoted should be labeled as such. What our writer did was wrong and we apologize.

I haven’t done a close textual analysis of the two Wooden articles by Herskowitz, so I can’t comment on his transgressions. If he simply put his name on an article he wrote in 1990 and turned it in to his editor as new work, he committed a journalistic sin. For me, the notion that he occasionally recycled his old phrases or old reporting without precise attribution is much more of a gray area, because he’s a popular sports columnist with ties to Houston’s past, and presumably that’s why the newspaper has him on staff — to provide historical perspective on Houston’s sports scene. In any case, Herskowitz was suspended because the Houston Chronicle thought his transgression, while short of plagiarism (presumably since he recycled his old copy, and not someone else’s), was still violative enough of journalistic standards to warrant punishment.

The newspaper’s lead metro/state columnist Rick Casey, on the other hand, presented someone else’s article (ideas, facts, quotes) as his original work without proper attribution. Plagiarism is defined as the presentation of another’s original work as one’s own without proper attribution. A number of more detailed definitions of plagiarism in the context of journalism may be found on the web (a couple are here and here). The newspaper’s editors may well argue that Casey’s blanket attribution in his fifth paragraph absolves him of charges of plagiarism, but it doesn’t. He lifts ideas, facts, quotes, and in some cases, entire phrases, reorganizes the information slightly, and presents it as his original work without even crediting the original author — and engages in said practices for three paragraphs before he even (inadequately) acknowledges he’s about to crib from the Washington Post. Whether or not Casey thought he attributed properly, he didn’t. This isn’t a case of poor attribution, but a case of this columnist appropriating ideas, facts, quotes, and sometimes phrases from a columnist at another newspaper and presenting them as his own — the very definition of plagiarism. If Herskowitz’s behavior was bad form, Casey’s is the gravest of journalistic sins.

I often refer to the Houston Chronicle on these pages as the Comical because of its depressingly poor quality. It’s a nickname that’s produced a laugh in various places. But plagiarism is no laughing matter. This is a very serious offense that calls into question both the journalistic practices at the newspaper (why didn’t his editors catch this? Is this the only time it’s happened at the newspaper?) and the past columns of Rick Casey.

Will the newspaper act on this matter? Stay tuned.

(04-12-2004 Update) Alex Whitlock, Rob Booth, and Matt Welch weigh in on the matter (in addition to trackbacks). The Chronicle has not deigned to answer my email to them of 24+ hours ago.

(04-13-2004 Update) The Brazosport News blog weighs in on the matter (and Mickey Herskowitz’s suspension).

27 comments On Rick Casey: Plagiarist, Poor Journalist, Or What?

  • That’s a hot potato you’ve dug up there, Kevin. How long has Casey been with the Chronicle?

  • Cathy: Casey has been at the newspaper less than a year. There’s a glowing introduction from editor Jeff Cohen from 9 August 2003 here:

    http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA

    It’s obvious that Cohen has great affection for Casey. It remains to be seen whether it will cloud his editorial judgment on what comes next.

  • Hotshot Rick Casey?

    Hot-Copy Rick Casey!

  • Well done. Pretty damning, in my book.

  • lentulusgracchus

    Where did Casey come from? Is he a native Texan or an import?

    When Frank Michel left the <i>Chron</i> recently to go to work for Mayor Bill White, Cohen congratulated Michel on being part of the answer Cohen envisioned in his own campaign to make the paper more "progressive".

    So the question arises, is Cohen trying to graft a Northern paper onto the <i>Chron</i>? Where is he getting his talent, and where did Cohen himself get his training and his education?

    And more to the point, why does Cohen think the monopoly newspaper in a conservative city should be flaming liberal on its editorial page, trashing Baptists regularly and marching in lockstep with Left NGO’s on subjects from homosexuality to immigration to affirmative action to "regionalism" in local government (New Urban gongorist buzzspeak for bureaucratized, unaccountable government).

  • Much less than convincing stuff. As I noted elsewhere, it’s clear the columnist rehashed a story and did so without any particular insight of his own.

    However, he did mention the WaPo article in his column as the source of his story.

    Plagiarism? Not even close. A lazy column? Probably.

    But this isn’t about plagiarism, is it? It’s about attacking a certain paper whose editorial policies you disagree with.

  • A blanket attribution for what follows AFTER you’ve already taken three paragraphs hardly seems like fair attribution. In my view, a blanket attribution is not license to lift entire phrases, or to reword sentences slightly and present them as your own, or to present quotes (unless expressly identified as being obtained by Morgan).

    If you don’t accept the definitions of plagiarism I’ve offered, that’s certainly up to you. Your assertions that what I’ve documented isn’t "even close" and that there’s any doubt as to whether this was a lazy column would seem to leave you with the credibility gap.

    Nice that you can read my mind and know what this is "about," though. Funny, because I thought it was about bad journalism, something for which I’ve been pounding that newspaper for a LONG time. Readers who have been around for a while can certainly attest to that.

  • Kevin: Most newspapers I’m aware of have op/ed columnists appear in various parts of the paper. For example, my own paper has an op/ed writer on the front page of the Metro section, on the comics page and on the front pages of most the major sections (Business, Real Estate, Health, Style, Sports, etc.)Therefore, your assertion that op/eds must only appear on op/ed pages is not germane.

    No insult is intended. But it’s very clear you’re applying a *very* broad and somewhat hyperbolic standard of plagiarism. Most academic institutions post their definitions of plagiarism and there’s very little variance between them but they all maintain, without exception, a writer must cite or reference those ideas, facts, insights, etc. that are not their own.

    Casey satisfied that requirement.

  • That’s the crux of the debate. I don’t believe he did. And I don’t believe one should lift whole phrases without quotes. The debate centers on what constitutes proper (or adequate) attribution.

    I’m pleased, though, that you’ve moved off of your original "not even close" stance to the assertion that my definition of plagiarism is too broad. Your earlier position suggests the argument is ludicrous; the second suggests the matter is, well, arguable. You’d be on stronger ground still if you suggested my standard for attribution is too stringent, however. I don’t think it is, nor do I think the definitions of plagiarism I’ve linked are overly broad or hyperbolic, but those are indeed the competing positions.

    Since you bring up the academy, let me suggest that you not try to lift whole phrases without proper attribution in that setting. My experience in that setting is that it’s not nearly so lax as you intimate. Indeed, I’ve been waiting for a working journalist to suggest I’m bringing an academic standard of attribution to bear that’s too stringent for journalism. I don’t think so, but it’s a debatable point.

    I think we’ve done a fairly good job of fleshing out those debatable points.

  • Kevin: I don’t believe I’ve moved off my original position; I apologize if you inferred that. For the record, it’s my position that Casey’s column is not plagiarism and doesn’t remotely approach it by any reasonable standard.

    The fact is Casey did reference the WaPo.

    Since you bring up the academy, allow me to relate my experience. I graduated from one of the Federal Military Academies where plagiarism fell under the Honor Code; to be found guilty of plagiarism meant immediate dismissal–not a failing grade or some other slap on the wrist.

    What I meant by your standard being too broad is that conservatives have displayed a marked tendency to distort definitions in order to attack those they disagree. We see that in the flagrant misuse of such terms as "libel," "slander," "treason," and so forth.

    Plagiarism is a very serious charge; especially for journalists or writers who make a living by writing. But it serves no useful purpose to accuse people using a distorted and erroneous definition.

  • Back to my conservative vendetta and mindreading. Okay. Along the way, I think we raised some salient points, and that’s good. Thanks for that.

  • BTW, Kevin, you might want to try something I just tried. Prof. Lou Bloomfield–a physics prof at UVa–suspected one of his physics 101 classes might have been plagiarizing an assignment. So, he developed a software program to check his students’ assignments. Lo and behold, he uncovered one of the largest cheating scandals in UVa history.

    You can download his program here:
    http://plagiarism.phys.virg

    I did and compared the Casey column to the WaPo article.

    Now, you can tweak the program to whatever you desire but the bottomline is that the Casey article doesn’t match up especially well with the WaPo piece.

    It’s a pretty neat piece of S/W.

  • Interesting program with great utility, but no substitute really for a close textual analysis done by a human, which is what I’ve provided. People can judge for themselves whether the blanket attribution in Paragraph 5 is license to take as liberally as Casey took.

  • "a close textual analysis done by a human, which is what I’ve provided."

    Not really. You’ve provided a rather subjective reading based largely on your own biases against the paper and paired it with a rather novel interpretation of ‘plagiarism.’

    Given the hard fact the stories don’t match up very well and the fact that attribution is given–plagiarism simply isn’t an issue in this instance.

  • This from a mindreader. Whatever.

  • No, it doesn’t qualify as bad journalism, either. Remember–Casey is writing an opinion column.

    If we were to label as ‘bad journalism’ the writings of opinion columnists–we could start with folks like Bill Safire, Bob Novak, etc.

    Bad journalism is reporting X happened when, in fact, X did not. Bad journalism is falsifying or inventing people, places, events, accounts.

    Plainly, you may not understand what plagiarism is or is not. Definitions vary slightly but there is one common element: a writer must credit a cite or source for any ideas or facts.

  • Casey’s on the front page of the metro/state section, not the op-ed pages, and even if he were on the op-ed pages, no, that’s not license to lift phrases and quotes without PROPER attribution (i.e. if you’re gonna take quotes and exact phrases, you need to credit those). Sorry, that defense of what he did is as convincing as your effort at mindreading.

    I could condescend and write that you plainly misunderstand what constitutes proper attribution, but it’s obvious we disagree on that. That’s the heart of the matter, really, and opinions seem to vary. OPINIONS. Do you really think it bolsters your case for your opinion to insult me by asserting I may not "understand what plagiarism" is?

    I don’t know if one has to be a mindreader to begin to wonder if you aren’t just trolling. Whatever. As TFG says about his place, comments are free. Knock yourself out (within reason, that is).

  • This is plagarism at its’ worst. If Mickey Herskowitz is guilty of plagarism, then it is obvious that Rick Casey is. You can nit pick and parse words, but plagarism is still plagarism by any name.Ronald Easley

  • If you don’t think that Casey’s column was a shining example of plagarisim, try taking a movie script and changing the characters’ names and slightly altering the dialogue, then publish it with a new title. See what happens next.

    Even if you attribute it as "based on a story by [original author]" I suspect that you will find yourself in court with a judge explaining the definition of ‘plagarism’, while awarding damages to the original author.

  • I wish I could cancel my Chronicle subscription to protest, but I did that long ago!

  • All I have to say is that I sure wish JadeGold had traded places with my new editor during my last road-to-editorial hell revision. She left no word unturned and upended every sentence. My co-author and I were throwing cyber-bricks her way. I’m sure "blanket attributions" isn’t part of her vocabulary, and I’m certain, given what you’ve said, Casey’s head would have been on the editorial chopping block.

  • Casey is always smug when blasting GOP’s. He didn’t think it was proper for the secretary of the PAC in San Antonio to steal money, but it was okay for him to "steal" someone’s ideas and words. nHe’s lazy. He never thought the bloggers would catch him.

  • Mary Jo Moore

    This article would get any 8th grade student an F or 0 on a paper. His idea of writing is a disgrace.

  • I was looking on line to find out what happened to Rick Casey and found this undated blog. By reading some comments it appears to be a couple of years old.

    Now my question! What has happened to Rick Casey?

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