Add business reporter Zachery Kouwe to the list of names that also includes Jayson Blair, Fox Butterfield, Steve Erlanger, and Rick Bragg—all New York Times journalists in the plagiary hall of fame.
According to the New York Times:
In a number of business articles in The Times over the past year... Zachery Kouwe, reused language from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other sources without attribution or acknowledgment... The Times was alerted to the problem by editors at The Wall Street Journal... Copying language directly from other news organizations without providing attribution — even if the facts are independently verified — is a serious violation of Times policy and basic journalistic standards. It should not have occurred. The matter remains under investigation by The Times...
Plagiarism is fiendishly difficult to spot unless you are the person who's been plagiarized. What are you going to do—Google every sentence a writer turns in? Even then, running sentences in quotation marks through Google won't necessarily find anything because of the magic of tiny alterations, and running sentences through Google without quotation marks turns up forty billion hits, because each word in a sentence leads to topics Google knows about. Several years ago it turned out that a Stranger writer had "reused language" from other publications multiple times and no one knew it—for years! We found out after that writer had left the paper (for other reasons) from someone who was doing research on a topic and reading a ton of different articles about it. We went back into that writer's online archive and tried to see if there was "reused language" in other pieces, which felt like trying to find a contact lens in the ocean. An editor would scour a piece and Google all the phrases in it and the piece would come up clean, no plagiarism—sigh of relief!—and then someone else would double check that same piece and find that it was full of "reused language" ever so slightly altered, with close synonyms replacing key words, nouns written out in a different order, the tense changed from past to present, or whatever. Eventually we decided to just delete all of that writer's work from our website. Not because the information was wrong (it probably wasn't), but because some of it was plagiarized and we had no way of knowing how much.
People who want to hate the New York Times will use this as yet another reason to believe the New York Times can't be trusted, but that's bullshit: No company that produces a written product (books, magazines, newspapers) is immune to plagiarism. And consider the volume of original content the New York Times cranks out every day. As for books, I suppose you've heard of Doris Kearns Goodwin?
And, on the scale of journalistic offenses, plagiarism isn't as horrifying as fabrication. The fabricator to end all fabricators was Stephen Glass, the New Republic reporter who had the gall, in the age of the internet, to make up entire companies, people, situations, etc., out of thin air. One of my first long pieces for The Stranger was about Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair sitting down for their first joint interview—they talked on the record about why they'd done the things they'd done and how they felt about it. What we didn't mention (though there were clues embedded in the text, and the art director at the time doctored the photo of them together to make something about it seem just slightly off) was that I made it up. I committed the same crime against them that they'd committed against all those other people. Then, the following week in The Stranger, Savage printed a correction, which he plagiarized from the New York Times correction about Jayson Blair.
As for Zachary Kouwe, the Huffington Post has some of the passages in question side by side. Gawker points out that "Kouwe's trouble spots seem to be banal background passages, dry sentences about Madoff asset freezes that are probably as painful to write as they are to pore over in search of repetition." So long as there aren't further revelations of bigger problems with his reporting, it sounds like the guy is probably under a lot of stress (news is a competitive business, especially if you work at the New York Times) and he just fucked up.