Frank Rich, idea borrowing from the blogosphere, diffusion, and the availability heuristic

Frank Rich’s column today seems correlated with something I wrote. But with writing by lots of other people too. That’s the nature of the op-ed beast.

Frank Rich writes today:

Obama was already wobbling toward another “compromise” in which he does most of the compromising. It’s a measure of how far he’s off his game now that a leader who once had the audacity to speak at length on the red-hot subject of race doesn’t even make the most forceful case for his own long-held position on an issue where most Americans still agree with him….. Etc.

Since I wrote a column in this space and then the New Republic, called President Obama: I love You, but You Need to Raise Your Game, which included some of the same points and figures, along with the lines:

…this episode illustrates the periodic preemptive surrenders that are frustrating to the President’s closest supporters. It’s disappointing not to win key items such as the public option. It’s a lot more demoralizing when progressives sense that we dither, when we negotiate with ourselves, when we allow rather popular positions undercut by moderate and conservative Democrats. Before we know it, we’ve lost things that are important to us without getting anything in return, without even a clear and compelling defense of what should be core Democratic positions.

I was irritated. Especially as a not-so-famousnik in the writing game, I’m sensitive about such things, but then I started to think about it, and two things came to mind.

First, I realized that other commentators–Jonathan Chait, Jonathan Cohn, Steve Benen, Jonathan Zasloff, and others–could make equal or greater claims on this particular column. For some reason, my own writings come to mind more readily and with a greater sense of grievance than did the writings of these others. Yet of course my own column was, itself, not especially original in this mix.

Second, I realized that top-drawer op-ed columnists–Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, and others–are often de facto opinion aggregators. Some fraction of their work amounts to processing and re-processing with greater reach, and certainly in Rich’s case with conspicuous verve and skill, ideas and arguments that are already freely circulating in the blogosphere, among issue advocates, and elsewhere.

It’s bad that other people’s stuff sometimes gets snagged along the way with varying degrees of moral or institutional culpability. It’s a good thing in the sense that the blogosphere fuels the broader conversation with ideas that don’t really originate with a clear author, anyway.

Postscript: I was being oblique with my reference to the availability heuristic. The ideas in my column, and then Rich’s, are floating around the blogosphere. I was irritated by the superficial resemblance to one piece–by me, naturally–but that is the nature of the game. While I find Rich’s article pretty unoriginal–read my piece and then his–no I do not think it was plagiarized from my, um, estimable oevre.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

10 thoughts on “Frank Rich, idea borrowing from the blogosphere, diffusion, and the availability heuristic”

  1. LOL, Harold. Those guys have been stealing my stuff for years! Just ask the friends who have to put up with my email rants. Frank Rich can be good, but it is well to remember that he was a Colonel in Somerby's War Against Gore, which really did make our downward path through Bush the Lesser more likely. Now, Somerby can be a pain in the neck, but on this he is right. Does that make you feel better?

  2. Harold, you seem to be ruling out the possibility that multiple people could come to the same conclusion independently of each other simply through observation (in this case, of Obama's behavior). Seems to me any reasonably clear-headed person can see what's happening without having to hear about it from others.

  3. What I see is the words of two commentators who (along with many others) who have come to similar conclusions. I see no reason to believe that Mr. Rich had read your estimable writings. Even if had, and acknowledged being influenced by your forceful argument, I would still see neither plagiarism nor, given the format, failure to provide a required acknowledgment. This post should have stayed in the word processor.

  4. Our culture privileges concepts of individualism to such an extent that we can scarcely appreciate the extent to which "thinking" is a social process. We'd rather imagine that there was a marketplace of ideas, with every vendor claiming intellectual property rights, than recognize that our political discourse is an on-going conflict, waged by armies — some paid and professional, some volunteer skirmishers of varying skill.

    The high-profile "aggregators" don't have to be good writers or acute observers of politics or culture — though I think Frank Rich is reasonably good at both tasks, does anyone think Maureen Dowd or Tom Friedman are anything but hacks? David Broder? David Brooks? Jonah Goldberg?

    More than aggregators of information or ideas, the most visible pundits and opinion mongers are marketing poses. Keith Olbermann promises to tell you what you will be discussing tomorrow around the water cooler at the office. Have you ever made the mistake of visiting More skillfully manipulative link-selling is hard to imagine; it's the news equivalent of potato chips, and even less nutritious.

    It is a deeply social process, seriously bureaucratized (just how do all those Republicans get the talking points, overnite, that they repeat in lockstep the next morning?), and the objectives are also completely social: manufacture of consent and consensus reality, and legitimization of authority and the exercise of power.

    Amid the endless cacophony, it would be difficult, indeed, to have an original idea, which was anything other than a terrible, inexplicable "error", which no one else would recognize. To be appreciated, expressions must be recognizable, and to be recognizable, expressions must be restatements of ideas circulating. There's no doubt some processes of variation and selection going on. I wouldn't doubt that there's a strong filter imposed by our corporate Media, which is a part of that selection process, and which has the effect of herding our "thinking".

    The continuous speculation about Obama's behavior, centering on unsolicted wishfulness about his political strategy, reflects a widening split in the Democratic Party, between those who strongly wish to believe he's not evil, and those, who recognize that he is evil.

    In this vein, I would recommend Greider in the Nation — a remarkably subtle piece of reasoning.

    No matter what we might wish from him, Obama will remain a far more masterful practitioner of politics than any of his critics and well-wishers. He will also remain the bought and paid-for servant of the banks and the oil companies, not the People. How many will be willing to face that reality squarely remains to be seen.

  5. I'm still hoping someone will plagiarize "If you don't like taxes, don't start wars." Or even, "If you don't like taxes, don't support wars." Now that the Tea Party has swung a national election, it seems like there is a need for a simple slogan to counter some of theirs. Google indicates that said plagiarism has yet to be done.

  6. I commented several days ago on a Matt Yglesias post, and then did a follow up post on my own blog. Earlier today I found Matt did a follow up post expressing the same idea I had blogged. Outrageous! Except that a quick check showed he wrote his follow up before I wrote mine. Similar ideas come to people more often than we may realize.

  7. "Except that a quick check showed he wrote his follow up before I wrote mine."

    Don't forget that time stamps can be for different time zones.

  8. A few years ago when I didn't follow politics as avidly as I do today, especially on the Internet, I loved Frank Rich's columns because they brought together a bunch of recent ideas in a compelling way. Cogently tying a lot of very recent comments together is his schtick and he has done well with it.

    Today I seldom read him because I've already read the same ideas here and on other blogs and in news accounts.

    I suspect his current schtick will pale for more people over time due to the Internet.

  9. Oblique indeed. What reason would you have to have to be publicly irritated that a noted commentator agreed with you, unless you felt your work had been pilfered? Also, your penultimate sentence reads like a rather specific complaint. However, glad to have that resolved.

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