Copy That

| July 25, 2013
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Here is the thing about a great speech. The person who gave it probably didn't write it. There are exceptions. Abe Lincoln, Winston Churchill, maybe Barack Obama in 2004 — "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America."

In another version of my life I would be a speechwriter. I hate giving speeches. I don't want to have given the greatest oration of the 21st century. I want to have written it.

So Dan Johnson, you could have paid me to write you a whammy of a high school graduation speech. Then you wouldn't be in such a pickle.

Students at Arcata High School caught Johnson, our local construction magnate and member of the Northern Humboldt Union High School Board, in an embarrassing act of plagiarism in June, when they recognized the speech he gave at their graduation ceremony as one they had studied in their AP English class. He said it was a letter he wrote to his daughter. It was about how she and her classmates had been coddled all their lives.

Most writing is too stale to be worth stealing. I get more upset when people steal my ideas, but there is no rule against that. So author E.L. James can make a killing off vampire stories copied off Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books, which she ripped off of Anne Rice's vampire books, which were rip-offs of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was ripped off of a story by Lord Byron, who stole it from his doctor, who probably based it off a story by Goethe, etc. etc. I, meanwhile, ripped off most of that info from Wikipedia.

But plagiarism is serious. If he hadn't been caught plagiarizing speeches back in 1988, our current vice president, Joe Biden, would likely have watched the Berlin Wall fall from his own bedroom in the White House.

In journalism, plagiarism is a job-ender. That's why I'm paranoid about it. For the textbook I wrote back in 2009, I was so paranoid about inadvertent plagiarism that even though most of the material came from my own brain, I found other sources for the same info so I could provide citations.

Plagiarism is such a no-no because it causally connects Deadly Sin #4 — sloth — with the Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not steal. Because thou art too lazy to write thine own damn story, thou stealeth from someone else.

It is a pretty easy crime to avoid. If you can't reword enough to cover yourself, you just cite the source. So E.L. James just needed to say, "And thanks to Stephanie Meyer and Anne Rice and, of course, Bram Stoker, for being my inspiration! I'll forever be in your debt!"

To plagiarize a well-known speech at a high school graduation is sheer stupidity or the height of hubris. I take that back. Dan Johnson wins the trophy for hubris for his refusal to resign, despite an onslaught of calls for him to do that.

Even if Johnson had written that speech, that he gave it shows he doesn't belong on the board. Wellesley High English teacher David McCullough wrote that speech for a very different audience. The students he addressed last year live in a Massachusetts town with a $125,000 median household income. Only 3.5 percent of the students at the high school come from low-income families. To tell those students they have been coddled all their lives and are not, in fact, special was an important message.

In Arcata, the median household income is less than $23,000. Some 29 percent of the students at AHS come from socioeconomically disadvantaged households. Too many of them didn't know where they would be living from month to month. Some of them had parents addicted to drugs. Some had single moms or dads holding down two jobs to keep food on the table. Their clothes came from thrift stores and the school lunch was the best meal they'd get all day. Some were the first in their families to graduate from high school.

Dan, maybe you were able to coddle your graduating daughter, as I am able to coddle my daughter. But for many sons and daughters sitting in that audience and listening to the speech you didn't write, to have graduated was an achievement that came after an amazing life struggle, one that isn't by any means over. Those kids were special that day, and for you to tell them different was an act of — well, I can't even find the right word for it.

Maybe the question we should ask isn't why Johnson refuses to resign. Maybe the question is why is he on the school board in the first place?

Back in 2005, 18-year-old Shane Brinton, fresh out of Arcata High, beat Johnson for the Northern Humboldt Union High School District board even though Johnson spent thousands to put up fancy signs all over Arcata and McKinleyville and Brinton ran as a communist. When Brinton, now mayor, won election to the Arcata City Council in 2009, Johnson got himself appointed to the school board to replace Brinton. He had to run for election later that year and lost to Dana Silvernale, who is still on the board. Then in 2011 he got back on the board in an uncontested race that did not show up on a ballot.

Here we have, on the Northern Humboldt Union High School District Board, a guy who the voters twice rejected and never elected and who subsequently gave students a plagiarized speech about how they don't deserve special treatment.

So here is my message to the Class of 2013: Johnson's term ends in two years. One of you needs to run against him. I'll pay for some fancy signs and be the first one to stick one on my lawn. And then you can give the speech to the Class of 2016. It doesn't have to be great. It just has to be yours. I'll even write it for you.

—– Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She wrote a great speech for her college graduation but the speech committee chose Student Body President Steven Benson. Her speech was better.

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Comments (5)

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Johnson's behavior created a "teachable moment." The lesson to be drawn depends in part on the behavior of the school board, but it's definitely a "teachable moment" no matter what ethics (or lack thereof) the board eventually chooses to demonstrate. Kevin Hoover of the Arcata Eye summed this up well in a comment in his own newspaper's comment section:

"Students following the discussion should pay particular attention to the above comment, because it contains a valuable lesson about the way the world works.

"Never mind what they tell you in school about justice being blind, a level playing field or equal rights under law. When a well-to-do, well-connected person gets in trouble, there will be no shortage of defenders – including the same teachers who are supposed to instill in you values of fairness and personal responsibility – who rush to that privileged person's aid.

"If you have a "large, successful business," and "tens of thousands of dollars" to ladle out, you will be held to a much more indulgent standard of behavior. If you are an average person, or a lowly student who, say, copied your homework, you will have nothing.

"If you expect accountability by the wealthy offender, you will be belittled, as other commenters have, as "holier than thou," and told to "get over yourselves." The well-connected person won't even be expected to explain their actions before you are told to forgive them and "get on with your lives."

"And that, kids, is the way your world works."

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Posted by Sanity's Overrated on 07/25/2013 at 8:35 AM

So the next time an Arcata kid gets caught plagiarizing, he/she should just apologize for the lack of attribution, and also criticize the teacher who caught him/her for their lack of tolerance of plagiarism?

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Posted by Reality Bytes on 07/26/2013 at 7:44 AM

Shane against the local businessman for school board
included a hit piece so dirty I saved itBut anyway we electede the y oung upstart and now he is our mayor

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Posted by jean doran1 on 07/27/2013 at 3:31 PM

A great article. But I was surprised that a journalism teacher would have made at least two grammatical mistakes; maybe it was the press of press time.

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Posted by Richard E Taylor on 07/29/2013 at 5:39 PM

Yet another fantastic essay by Burstiner. I especially liked the ending. Why the hell is this guy on the board anyway, besides that his best friends are there too. Be interesting to see if he submitted complete financial disclosures before taking the seat. Any improprieties could be attributed to his lack of a college education, the same reason he cited for his lack of attribution earlier.

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Posted by Tall Trees on 08/02/2013 at 8:06 PM
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