John Barrie is used to a certain kind of notoriety. In 1996, while a researcher at UC Berkeley, he helped create a computer program that vetted student term papers for instances of plagiarism. Faculty members loved it, and Barrie eventually created iParadigms, an Oakland-based research company that scans the Internet for plagiarism on behalf of thousands of universities, publishing firms, and companies eager to guard their intellectual property. He's made dozens of appearances in The New York Times and on the BBC and CNN, but always as a tweedy academic, solemnly warning about the rash of cheating in America. Two weeks ago, though, Barrie achieved a decidedly different sort of fame: He became the man who could bring down Ann Coulter.
Bloggers and other lefties preoccupied with populist punditry have longed slavered over the prospect of watching Coulter wither in disgrace. In a world of blond, smug, reactionary bimbos flashing their pearly whites while uttering flippant fantasies about slaughtering the staff of The New York Times, Coulter is the undisputed queen bee. In best-selling books and countless appearances on Fox News, she has virtually invented the industry of cheerful, tasteless calumny, infuriating liberals with obvious pleasure as she accuses half the country of treason. For years, lefties thought Coulter might be undone by saying something that finally forces the country to realize how ugly her shtick really is, but each time she outdoes herself the latest example was making nasty remarks about the physical appearance of four 9/11 widows she simply sells more books. Now, thanks to Barrie, Coulter stands accused of plagiarizing other writers' work both in her columns and her latest book.
It all started with Oprah. A few weeks ago, New York Post reporter Philip Recchia heard that Winfrey, recently embarrassed by the plagiarism of memoirist James Frey, had begun using Barrie's service to vet submissions and make sure prospective guests hadn't cribbed someone else's work. Recchia called Barrie and asked how his service worked, and Barrie offered to test a sample chosen by the Post. Recchia e-mailed a 2005 speech by Hillary Clinton. In a matter of minutes, Barrie found five instances of plagiarism.
Oddly, Recchia decided not to run a story about the senator. (When asked why, he declined to comment, referring all questions back to Barrie.) Instead, he told Barrie the Post wanted to put a famous author through the cribbing test. After Coulter made a sensation with her remarks about the 9/11 widows, Barrie got a second phone call. "Phillip Recchia called back and said, 'Ann Coulter's Godless that's what we want to run through your service,'" he recalls.
The Post e-mailed him a digital version of Coulter's latest book, as well as a year's worth of her columns, and Barrie went to work. He wasn't familiar with Coulter's oeuvre, he says, and while scanning the material as part of the vetting process, "my eyes were beginning to bleed." Fortunately, just a few minutes of searching the Web with his iThenticate program turned up numerous instances of intellectual misconduct. Barrie called the Post, informed them of what he called Coulter's "textbook plagiarism," and declared he wouldn't finish her book, as he had better things to do: "I told the Post, 'Look, that's it. I'm done.'"
On July 2, the Post ran the story under the headline, "Copycatty Coulter Pilfers Prose: Pro," and cited several passages that apparently were lifted from other publications, including one from the San Francisco Chronicle. Three days later, Coulter struck back in her own column. Apparently, she had just discovered the Post was a trashy tabloid, and wrote, "Once considered a legitimate daily, the Post has been reduced to tabloid status best known for Page Six's breathless accounts of Paris Hilton's latest ruttings." She also suggested that "the Post's constant harassment of me is an attempt to shake me down," but never mentioned the plagiarism claims or how the paper was harassing her. The next day, her distributor, United Press Syndicate, announced it was investigating the claims, and subsequently declared they were without merit.
Barrie, meanwhile, found himself flooded with media calls; Good Morning America, The Today Show, and others tried to book him to address the Coulter sensation. But he wasn't looking for that kind of publicity. He regards himself as a guardian of academic honor and integrity, not a character assassin. "This is the first time I can remember that the story is really more than the technology," he says. "This is about a person, and I'm reluctant to have our company used as a tool to go after Ann Coulter."
Nonetheless, bloggers around the country were alternatively hailing Barrie or badmouthing him as a tool of the activist left. Someone at FreeRepublic.com discovered that Barrie's company chairman, Steven Berger, had given $1,000 to MoveOn.org, and a writer for Human Events Online described Barrie as "a graduate from the People's Republic of Berkeley" and questioned his academic bona fides. He also was contacted by a liberal writer who contributes the blog Raw Story, who congratulated him on fingering Coulter and, Barrie claims, dropped a small bomb. "By the way," the blogger asked, "would you be up to analyzing books from a few more people's works?"
That's when it hit Barrie: This was never going to end. Before his company was founded, critics who wanted to check an author for plagiarism had to spend weeks online or at a public library, cycling through stacks of material. Now, thanks to iParadigm, they can do the same thing in an hour or two. So many people with money hate Ann Coulter that Barrie thinks it's just a matter of time before someone hires him to check not just her latest book, but everything she's ever written, even her law school term papers, for plagiarism. Same goes for Bill O'Reilly, Al Franken, Michael Moore, Sean Hannity every populist author who hires a staff of ghostwriters and spits out a book every few months. These plagiarism scandals, he says, are just beginning.
"People like Jayson Blair and Jack Kelly at USA Today and Michael Olesker at The Baltimore Sun, they were caught by accident," Barrie says. "Now, you got people like Philip Recchia at The New York Post, you got people at Raw Story, you got people who are proactively looking for the next Jayson Blair. In the case of Ann Coulter, that wasn't by chance. The Post was out to take a very, very close look at her work."
And it won't just be celebrity authors. Newspapers could employ Barrie's services to scan every story rivals have printed since the Web became ubiquitous, looking for plagiarism and they're bound to find plenty. The sensation Barrie caused by nabbing Coulter has put the entire publishing and newsgathering industry on notice. For ten years, unscrupulous writers used the Web to crib from obscure sources, confident no one would ever find out. But that decade of impunity is now over, and for writers and publishing houses around the country, a new age of accountability has finally begun.
The original version of this story contained an error. This version has been corrected. Here is the correction as it appeared in the print version:
The Raw Story writer cited is merely a contributor; he does not run the blog. Furthermore, he disputes Professor John Barrie's recollection that he congratulated Barrie for exposing Ann Coulter's alleged plagiarism.
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