Andrew Kramer’s Pulitzer-winning piece: plagiarized or not?

The New York Times won three Pulitzer prizes yesterday, one awarded…

…for international reporting for a series on Russia’s surreptitious assertion of power. The series, a collaboration among The Times’s international, Washington and investigative teams, explored how Russia was expanding its influence at home and abroad.

One report from the Times’ Russia’s Dark Arts series is How Russia Recruited Elite Hackers for Its Cyberwar by Andrew E. Kramer. To quote a few sentences from this piece:

Mr. Vyarya, 33, a bearded, bespectacled computer programmer who thwarted hackers, said he was suddenly being asked to join a sweeping overhaul of the Russian military last year…

“Sorry, I can’t,” Mr. Vyarya said he told an executive at a Russian military contracting firm who had offered him the hacking job…

“This is against my principles — and illegal,” he said of the Russian military’s hacking effort.

One would think that Andrew Kramer flew to Finland to talk to Vyarya, who has sought asylum in that country. Or, perhaps, Kramer interviewed Vyarya via Skype or phone or e-mail.

But did he? There’s no indication of personal communication or correspondence in the piece. Nowhere does Kramer mention meeting Vyarya or speaking to him. Later on, Kramer credits a local source for having first broken the story (more than a year ahead of the Times):

…an investigation by Meduza, a Russian news site based in Riga, Latvia, that first disclosed the recruitment effort.

He links to one long article by Meduza‘s Daniil Turovsky but neglects to cite another Turovsky piece, an interview with Alexander Vyarya in Helsinki. Had he done so, his debt to Meduza and Turovsky would have been obvious.

One can be forgiven for suspecting that Kramer merely repackaged Turovsky’s interview without speaking directly to his subject. (I’d bet that’s exactly what K. did.) Of the two, Turovsky does the better job telling the story of a gifted, self-made Russian cybersecurity professional who refused to become a hacker for a shady but possibly state-sponsored firm and fled abroad. Let’s say it looks like a case of substantial plagiarism, if technically borderline and deniable, as well as a regrettable loss of detail and quality.

Oleg Kashin, one of Russia’s best-known political journalists, gives Kramer a pass on plagiarism and blames the global voicelessness of Russian investigative journalists for Kramer’s taking liberties with Meduza‘s original content (the translation is mine):

We’re not talking about plagiarism here – Kramer even mentions Meduza (once) as the first publication to write about these hackers – but that’s beside the point. Apart from Turovsky’s texts retold, Kramer’s text has nothing else. Moreover, his retelling incorporates what’s called a presence effect, as if Vyarya had spoken to Kramer about his work in person – and that is, at least, unethical…

So Kashin doesn’t think K. ever met V., either. That’s interesting, but Kashin rushes off to mount one of his favorite hobby horses:

Doubtless this would have caused a major uproar if the reporter Kramer had been awarded the prize for rewriting articles from American or other, not necessarily Anglophone, newspapers – German, French, first-world more generally. But the Russophone Meduza, even if it starts beating all the drums within its reach, exists beyond the field of vision of the people who award Pulitzer prizes, of Kramer’s editors, of the world’s public opinion generally speaking. Russia is a global periphery, a province, a backwater; no one cares about the grievances of Russian-language authors and their voice is hardly louder than a mouse’s squeak – and that’s doubly paradoxical since the prize was awarded for a series of articles precisely about Russia’s being a formidable and dangerous global player.

Well, I don’t really know. Turovsky is only 27 years old but has done some excellent investigative work and had his pieces republished in The Guardian. The question is, does he feel like raising hell about it all, and how do his editors feel?


    • Kramer says he did speak to Vyarya, who merely repeated, word by word, what he had told Turovsky. (Link: It’s possible that Vyarya copied his own words from Turovsky’s piece and pasted them into an email to Kramer. Giving Kramer the benefit of the doubt on this, he still seems to have merely retraced Meduza’s investigation. That added some value as a verification effort but the core of investigative journalism is digging up facts and connecting the dots for the first time. We give credit to the detective who actually solved the crime, not his older colleague who interviewed the same witnesses and came to the same conclusion later.

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