How a Maine blogger forced a gubernatorial campaign staffer to resign over plagiarism allegations
by Simon Owens
Les Otten is no stranger to plagiarism charges. Not long after the former American Skiing Company CEO entered the race for Maine governor last summer, his campaign was accused of ripping off Obama’s iconic “O” logo and website, a situation only made worse when he responded with the untrue claim that Obama had borrowed his own logo from a Pepsi campaign (the Pepsi logo, in fact, came after Obama’s). But the allegations that Matt Gagnon began launching this past Friday were much more serious. Gagnon, a former colleague of mine, runs the Maine-centric blog, Pine Tree Politics, and last week he was reading the written answers from the gubernatorial candidates to a questionnaire sent out by a fellow blogger. The blog, August Insider, had posted the responses to his questions (which were mostly focused on education issues) last Tuesday, and there was something about Otten’s answer that Gagnon found familiar.
“We both did a little digging on our own here and linked it to testimony given by Stephen Bowen from [the Maine Heritage Policy Center],” he told me in a phone interview. “It was public testimony he had given to the State House.”
That testimony had been copied nearly word-for-word (with some bullet points thrown in to mask the plagiarism) and sent off to the Augusta Insider, presented as Otten’s own original response. Gagnon published his initial post exposing the similarities on Friday, a piece he said was quickly circulated among Republicans. But despite widespread online distribution, the traditional press outlets didn’t immediately touch the story. The blogger would go on to write several more posts exposing much more extensive plagiarism before reporters would finally begin catching up on Sunday.
“I ended up doing more digging and found his ‘Jobs for Maine’ plan, which is one of his central points of his campaign,” he said. “It’s prominently featured on his website, it’s like a pop-up feature. I went in there and looked at a bunch of passages and started literally doing a Google search of paragraphs. Take one paragraph, throw it into Google and spit it out, and I ended up finding additional instances of direct copies of more Heritage Foundation stuff in his jobs section. So we’re going down the list and we’re finding more and more instances of him copying directly from this one policy think tank on multiple occasions and we continued to break these stories as they go on.”
Eventually, Otten’s campaign responded with a press release in which he claimed that he had met with the Heritage Foundation folks and had simply forgotten to include the citations, essentially implying that he had received the think tank’s permission to copy and paste its work. This prompted a quick response from Heritage’s Stephen Bowen (whose work had been copied without attribution) accusing the campaign of plagiarism and casting doubt on the claims in the press release. This action, Magnon predicted, is what caused the mainstream press to get engaged in the story, and it quickly began trying to catch up.
“We started seeing stuff from the Press Herald, from Maine public broadcasting, we saw stuff from Bangor Daily News,” he said. “The snowball started to build up at that point and then this morning the Bangor Daily News wrote a pretty big article on the whole thing that had a lot of details and essentially prompted the campaign to say, ‘OK, this is getting to be such a big story that someone has to go,’ so they ended up firing a staffer who they say was responsible for this.'”
That staffer, Will Gardiner, was a consultant who worked for a firm owned by Otten’s own campaign manager. The campaign provided the standard plagiarism defense that notes had been copied to the website and the attribution had been lost in the shuffle, but Gardiner nonetheless had to go because he had become a “distraction” to the campaign.
Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first major campaign story that Gagnon has broken. Just a week before he had contributed to the reporting on a campaign scandal from a Democratic candidate for governor, one that led to his exit from the race. Given the lament of editors everywhere that the lay-offs at newspapers would lead to the demise of government watch-dogs, I asked if these anecdotal instances showed that bloggers at least have the ability to replace some mainstream reporters. After all, Gagnon doesn’t even live in the state of Maine (though Pine Tree Politics is a Maine-centric blog, he lives several hundred miles away in the DC area).
“I hate the word ‘replace’ because what I do and what other blogs do is often times very similar but in a lot of ways not similar,” he replied. “I mean it has a lot of the same functions in breaking news like this, but it’s not really what I’m for. I prefer not to break news, I’d rather digest it and analyze it. But nonetheless you make a good point that at this point since the mainstream media is being so lax and the reporters they do have are essentially note takers, not doing the investigative journalism that they used to, it’s basically falling onto the people who are volunteering, who want to do this, who have an interest and are willing to volunteer their time and energy.”
I found it curious that he said he didn’t enjoy breaking news. Isn’t that what drives the most exposure and traffic?
“I’m a volunteer from 800 miles away, and to break news takes a lot of effort,” he said. “I’ve been on the phone a hell of a lot in the past two weeks. Personally, just for my own pace I enjoy finding the news that’s been happening and doing the analysis and finding the story about why it’s important and what to expect, my own opinion on my own steam on my own time. But if I’m chasing breaking stories I’m going to be devoting a lot of time to it that I don’t necessarily want to spend.”
Of course, Gagnon wouldn’t be able to pass on a good story if it were to fall in his lap. And the next time this happens, perhaps mainstream reporters will think twice before dismissing the story before it gets too large for even their news editors to ignore. Otherwise they’ll find themselves playing yet another game of catch-up.