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In other words: Is it plagiarism, or simply relaying an opinion?

Some time ago, a reader "caught" us in the act of plagiarism. A short press release, sent from the local college, was placed in the newspaper under a byline that read "By The Daily Republic." A major faux pas, the reader said, since this is the s...

Some time ago, a reader "caught" us in the act of plagiarism.

A short press release, sent from the local college, was placed in the newspaper under a byline that read "By The Daily Republic."

A major faux pas, the reader said, since this is the same newspaper that criticized famous historian Stephen Ambrose when it was learned that passages from some of his books were nearly identical to passages from other historians' work.

For reprinting a press release under our byline, we are no better than Ambrose, he said.

That's debatable.

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In our defense, a two-paragraph press release from Dakota Wesleyan can't be rewritten much; and besides, it's the exact information they want out in the first place. Remember -- it was sent to us to print in this newspaper, although we now either rewrite a press release or strive to put a line of attribution somewhere within the resulting short story.

In Ambrose's case, he took passages from other books and used them as his own, for his own profit. I'm quite certain those writers did not willingly submit their work to him, to be mass published for public knowledge.

Regardless, it's an argument that came to mind last week when it was learned that former Democratic candidate for governor Dennis Wiese submitted to a newspaper an article that he did not entirely write himself, yet signed it as if he did. It prompted howls of wrongdoing and plagiarism.

Was it?

As editor of your daily newspaper, I say yes. Of course, I'm not na?ve enough to think it doesn't happen.

"Your bringing up the ethical question is interesting," South Dakota Democratic Party Director Rick Hauffe told me in an interview Tuesday. "(A newspaper) may say yes, it's unethical. (Others) would say it's not entirely right, but if it's his opinion, then that's his opinion."

During the campaign season, some of those letters to the editor sure seem suspicious. Although we ask that letter writers form their own opinion and use their own words, I've seen many letters that smack of form letters, whether distributed by the parties or by the candidates themselves.

For the record, both Hauffe and state GOP Director Max Wetz say they do not condone form letters, signed by constituents.

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"We really try hard to stay away from that situation," said Wetz.

Wetz said the GOP often sends out postcards, encouraging people to express their opinion in letters to the editor.

"What we like to do is help people out, if they need suggestions or talking points for a letter to the editor or opinion piece," Wetz said. "But we try to stay away from the things that say 'Sign at the bottom.' "

So does that mean it happens, or not?

"In the time that I have been here, I can't recall a time when we have said, 'Here's a letter, sign your name at the bottom,' " Wetz said.

Hauffe said the Democrats use a similar approach, but said form letters are still out there and employed. Just not necessarily at the state level.

"If they tell you they don't, they're not telling the truth," he said.

Even the Democrats?

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"Yes," he said. "It happens."

It happens in the newspaper business more than we like.

The Women's National Basketball Association is pushing a letter to the editor campaign in hopes of getting more newspaper coverage. It's as easy as clicking on a form letter and putting your name at the bottom.

Outdoors columnist Babe Winkelman, The Daily Republic learned a few years ago, does not necessarily write his own columns. His staff admitted so much, but said that even though Winkelman himself isn't the author -- despite his name at the top -- all columns are of his viewpoint.

"It's not just the political parties that do this kind of thing," Hauffe said. "It's more widespread than that."

Hauffe is in a unique position. He's the director of the state's Democratic Party, but also is a former daily newspaper writer. He sees the problem from both sides.

Whereas a form letter about a candidate may be perceived as dastardly, he wonders if a form letter about juvenile diabetes should be viewed with the same villainous disdain.

"I really hate saying it, but there are all kinds of shades of gray. When you start peeling back all the layers, it's like an onion," he said. "It depends on who is sending it. Is it for political purposes, or for Easter Seals or the Jaycees? If you were to make an ethical ruling, which tends to be black and white, you can't make the ethical ruling that it's wrong."

kwenzel@mitchellrepublic.com

Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

He is a member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. board of directors and, in the past, has served on boards for Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.


As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.



Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103, or via Twitter via @korriewenzel.
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