Trump won, journos zero (again): media chases shiny ball of plagiarism, missing the real story

Trump wins the news cycles, again. For now.

The 2016 Republican National Convention got off to its anticipated rocky start on Monday. Anti-Trump protesters, Black Lives Matter protesters, a floor fight to change the rules regarding how delegates could cast their votes so they wouldn’t be bound to Trump – this promises to be a big, meaty news week!

But, thankfully, there’s been no heavied-up blue lines outside the convention center menacing pedestrians, no cops-vs-protesters confrontations on smoke-filled streets, but mostly scenes like this:

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Revolutionary Communist Party, anti-police-brutality protesters, militia members wearing semi-automatic weapons, and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones walked into a public square on Tuesday. Nobody was arrested.

Instead, the political protest action was going on inside the convention center. On Monday it looked like the big story at the end of the day would be about the the anti-Trump movement gathering strength among the delegates, yet being procedurally robbed by the party in a voice vote…but it wasn’t.

News analysts could have been nattering endlessly about the strength of the “never Trump” movement, and the rifts it has exposed in the party. They could have been reporting on the signatures collected far in excess of what was needed to force an up-or-down vote on the convention’s rules package. But, not so much.

They could have been discussing the selective deafness of Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, the convention chair, when he declared that the ayes had it on a voice vote to approve the existing convention rules, yet somehow seemingly failed to hear the simultaneous nays and strong objections of several delegations through the din. But, meh.

Thoughtful journalists might have even compared and contrasted the suppression of dissent at the convention with attempts across the country to suppress other kinds of protest against an oppressive status quo – protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, or whatever’s left of the Occupy movement, or even whatever the scary hell it is that’s going on in Turkey.

But no, that’s not what we’re getting. What is the American public being fed for its news diet this week? What did the all-news-is-breaking-news cable networks decide was most important for us to know, most worthy of our sustained attention as they carried out their sacred trust of providing journalism in the public interest?

Plagiarism. Well…maybe plagiarism. Possible plagiarism. Or something that, you know, is such a universal sentiment that it could be called “echoes” or a “mirror” or “strikingly similar”, but we’re not calling it that “p” word.

Prime time on Monday night at the convention started out as into-the-arena theater. Donald Trump stood dramatically backlit in a manufactured fog (why did no one think through that metaphor? –or, maybe they did). He stood there making himself look like a human version of an Academy Award statue, and then, with a pirated version of Queen’s “We Are The Champions” playing at concert volume, he strode out to introduce his wife, saying “We’re gonna win, we’re gonna win so big!”

Trump entrance

credit: C-SPAN

Melania Trump then read from the teleprompter a speech which she may or may not have had full input into crafting. It was a typically tame candidate’s-spouse speech, and it was her first lengthy exposure on a national stage. All she had to do was be poised and speak loving-spouse praises in articulate English. She performed beautifully.

Then someone saw something, and said something. Jarrett Hill, a laid-off TV reporter, felt like he’d heard this song before. He was watching the speech on TV, tweeting along in real time, and found himself finishing her sentences as she spoke them. He looked it up, and reported to Twitter:

Republicans stealing Democrat words? And passing them off as their own??? The plagiarism scandal went viral, and the cable news channels all swarmed after it like slobbering dogs chasing a shiny ball.

Here’s the relevant text:

Melania Trump speech compare

credit: CNBC

It’s now day 3 of #MelaniaGate, and the damn news channels are plagiarizing all over themselves with this story (Look! The words! They’re the same! Here – and here – see? See? What are the odds of that?). They’re spewing the same breathless news over and over and over again like they’ve suddenly gotten some reporting norovirus: Lite News Logorrhea.

I suppose, though, that it’s almost a relief, after weeks and months of covering sedition-inciting stump speeches, reporting again and again on the aftermaths of unarmed people suffering deaths-by-cop, and covering protests and bombings and terrorist truck drivers and a Turkey coup and counter-coup, to instead just go all in and focus full-bore on copy-and-paste word theft. It’s a simple, safe scandal: there’s a clear right and wrong, no one lost any money, no one got hurt, and reporters don’t have to wear flak jackets while covering it. So, in a frenzy of distractive relief, we get wall-to-wall coverage of something that means absolutely nothing to your life, because sometimes the news media hates its own life and wants to soothe itself with a bowl of news junk food. And also, the ratings give them a sugar high.

But, PEOPLE, c’mon. Get a grip. These two speeches came from First-Lady-wannabes during the finals of their husbands’ campaigns. They were part of the talent portion of the Mrs. President USA competition. There are no policy positions here, nothing that will change your life or your vote, just two women each telling you what a wonderful, good man her husband is and could you please vote for him?

Although, after looking at the speech similarities ad nauseam – which you would be forced to do if you were watching any cable news station for more than 15 consecutive minutes – the whole subject does become weirdly interesting, like the way a simple word starts to look strange if you look at it long enough. You’ve got to wonder why a competent speechwriter would have done such a thing when there are many software programs that the text can be run through to detect what could be seen as potential plagiarism. The campaign staff must have known right away what happened when the news broke, so why didn’t they just deal with it then? Why did it take two days before they finally agreed on who would take the fall for the screw-up?

I think they had to first figure out what happened, then figure out how to cover up what happened.

“I apologize for the confusion and hysteria my mistake has caused,” Meredith McIver, the speechwriter and “longtime admirer and friend of the Trump family” wrote in her statement released today. She stated that she had offered her resignation yesterday, but that it was rejected. At least one news outlet is skeptical of this story, and based on their research speculate that McIver may in fact be not a ghost writer at all, but a ghost – a pseudonym for someone inside the campaign. It wouldn’t be the first time Trump has created a sockpuppet for himself. We’ll find out soon enough – if she’s real and she was employed by the Trump Organization, using her services for the campaign may have violated federal election law.

Regardless of who wrote or edited the speech, the question is: why do such a poor job of disguising the purloined words, and then spend several days during a politically high-stakes week trying to ignore the dumb story in what amounted to move-along-nothing-to-see-here radio silence? I looked at the texts more closely to see if they held a clue. They do.

The real story here is not the plagiarism itself. It is not in the similarities.

It is in the differences between the similarities.

The earlier text clip highlighted similarities. This one, with my markups, shows the differences.

Melania Trump speech markup

original credit: Politifact

Someone chose this information to insert into Melania’s speech. Someone then chose to edit it in a particular way. You may think that the editing was to cover up the plagiarism. But if someone really wanted to cover up the plagiarism, it would have been a trivial matter to change a few more words to better hide the source of the concept – and remember, these are not original thoughts, but well-worn themes. Go google the phrase “your word is your bond” to get an overview of how often that phrase is used to describe personal integrity. Effort gets rewarded: “the only limit to achieving your aspirations is your will to work hard for what you want”. –See what I did there? It’s relatively easy to rephrase a concept to avoid casual detection.

Take a closer look at the editing:

your word is your bond and you do what you say…: someone added “and keep your promise”, a concept that was not in the original speech.

and that you treat people with…: the original said “dignity and respect”, but now it’s just “respect”.

lessons: there are new references to lessons that weren’t in the original text. A lesson to learn, lessons to pass on.

Because we want our children…: Michelle’s speech clarified and emphasized that she meant “all children”, but that was edited out. It seems small, but “our” is not “all”. To put it another way, “children of ours” does not necessarily include “children of others”.

the only limit to your achievements…: “height” was deleted (no more limits on height – music to a developer’s ears!), which focused the cadence of the sentence more strongly on achievement. The “reach of your dreams” had a nice internal rhyme, but “strength” is a stronger word, albeit a little unusual in this context: most often we talk about the size of a dream – dream big dreams, make no little plans – and not its power.

So there you have it. Your word is your bond. You do what you say. You keep your promise. You treat people with respect. That is the lesson. Achievement through strength.

Someone sent a message.

It sounds like someone edited just enough to send a message, publicly yet surreptitiously, via the changes. Keep your promise. Show respect. But who sent it? And who was it sent to? Who is being warned to keep their promise – and what is it? Who’s being told to treat people – presumably meaning the sender – with respect?

The changes weren’t in any of the speechwriter drafts that were publicly acknowledged, so it’s possible that the edits didn’t get made at all until the text was put in the teleprompter. Was it an inside job, or did a hacker break into the system?

Who would Trump send a message to, and why: Corey Lewandowski? Chris Christie? Roger Ailes? Somebody else entirely?

Who would send Trump such a message, and why: Lewandowski? Christie? Ailes? Somebody else entirely?

Maybe someone else sent a message meant for someone else: Paul Manafort? Trump the Younger?

Maybe Melania herself was sending a message.

Maybe it has nothing to do with anything on the public stage, but refers to some private matter?

Who knows. This particular conspiracy theory is worthy of a House of Cards episode: the plagiarism scheme has successfully diverted media coverage away from the Republican convention’s anti-Trump activities – Trump controls the news narrative once again! – but it unwittingly points to a deeper secret….

It’s fascinating to imagine all the scenarios. Fascinating and deliciously distracting. Pass the movie popcorn.

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