Chris Hedges is a former New York Times foreign correspondent whose popular antiwar polemic, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), enabled him to quit the newspaper business and become a full-time prophet, left-wing division. As Hedges has grown more austere in appearance—working-class duds, haunted gaze, steel-rimmed spectacles—his rhetoric has grown steadily apocalyptic, his prose overwrought. A selection of recent Hedges titles—American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2007), Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012)—will give an idea of what The Scrapbook is talking about.
And, of course, it will come as no surprise to learn that Hedges has been amply rewarded for his efforts: His dystopian view of his homeland, and overripe tone, have earned him awards from Amnesty International, teaching invitations from Princeton and Columbia, and praise from Paul Krugman. Hedges claims to subsist at the edge of the American “tinder-box”—the fascist one that’s about to blow up—but in fact, he lives and works very comfortably in the media.
Until now. This week, in the New Republic, author Christopher Ketcham chronicles a history of serial plagiarism by Hedges that is so detailed, so voluminous, so explicitly damning, that it is difficult to see how any but the most credulous members of the cult can ever take Hedges seriously again. Moreover, not only does Ketcham furnish chapter and verse, he relates Hedges’s answers to fact-checking inquiries (reflexively ugly) and attempts to intimidate suspicious editors (surprisingly crude).
It turns out that Hedges has routinely stolen sources ranging from the sublime (Ernest Hemingway) to the ridiculous (Naomi Klein), and specializes in what journalism professors call “patchwriting . . . restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.” Ketcham was first alerted to Hedges’s plagiarism when he discovered that his own wife’s work had been pilfered, and went on to learn how a fact-checker at Harper’s discovered that Hedges had lifted long passages from a Philadelphia Inquirer story. When confronted with the facts, Hedges was characteristically evasive and bullying; but Harper’s, to its credit, declined to publish the piece.
More troublesome, in The Scrapbook’s view, is the fact that Hedges’s regular outlets, the left-wing websites TruthOut and Truthdig, as well as the Nation, seem unconcerned. It will be interesting to see if the Times reviews Hedges’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
As we have said before, plagiarism ought to be a capital offense in journalism. It is surely a kind of psychic disturbance in print. Whatever impels writers to steal language from other writers, and publish it as their own, also makes them vulnerable to discovery. Hedges’s demons, which seem so obvious on the page, clearly represent something deeper than politics. The last thing serial plagiarists need is editors willing, in the name of ideology, to ignore their plagiarism.