Longform

Gerald Posner plagiarized New Times, PBS, and many others

"Several well-informed people in Miami Beach have advised me that there is a concerted effort underway to destroy my professional reputation, and in particular to discredit my book Miami Babylon," author Gerald Posner wrote ominously on his website March 22. "Undoubtedly, the book's unvarnished and investigative history has earned its share of enemies."

That's what the South Beach-based author had to say after Miami New Times published eight passages from Frank Owen's 2003 work Clubland that Posner had lifted in a recently published volume about the city's history.

It's also total bullshit. So far at least, the only one burning down Posner's career is the author himself.

To wit: In the past week, doctoral student Gregory Gelembiuk and New Times — using special software and perusing texts — have come up with 16 brand-new instances of stolen prose by the author in Miami Babylon (as well as three formerly undisclosed examples from other work). We shared the thievery with Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar and plagiarism expert at St. Petersburg's Poynter Institute.

"These look like obvious cases of plagiarism to me," Clark says. "The fact that Posner at times changes a word or two is not nearly enough to qualify as paraphrase."

New Times sent Posner an email detailing all of the new problems we found in Miami Babylon. He didn't respond to the email or to multiple phone messages.

Posner, on his blog, defends his earlier transgressions by arguing "there are degrees of plagiarism" and that his is less serious because he accidentally copied other people's work.

"Mine is not a case like Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass where there was either wholesale copying from others or in some instances fabrication," Posner wrote March 17. "Any sentences copied by me from published sources were never done with the hope or expectation I'd trick others and get away with it."

Posner, a San Francisco native and Berkeley grad, landed a job when he was just 23 years old with the blue-blood New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, according to his Simon & Schuster bio. By 1986, he had left to publish his first book, a biography of Nazi death doctor Josef Mengele.

Posner has been journalism royalty since 1993, when he made best-seller lists and was a Pulitzer finalist for his fifth book, Case Closed, which attempts to prove Oswald acted alone in killing JFK. Since Case Closed, Posner has added to his resumé six more nonfiction works on topics from 9-11 to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

In 2004, records show, Posner and his wife Trisha bought a $385,000 condo in SoBe's South of Fifth neighborhood.

When Tina Brown started her Daily Beast website in 2008, she hired Posner as chief investigative reporter. His writing included local stories about Fontainebleau heir Ben Novack Jr.'s death and national pieces on Michael Jackson's last hours. His 454-page book about the sordid history of his new hometown, Miami Babylon, debuted to positive reviews last year.

Everything began unraveling this past February 5, when Slate's media columnist, Jack Shafer, nailed him for stealing seven sentences from the Miami Herald in a Daily Beast piece. Posner said he was "horrified," apologized, and promised it was "inadvertent."

That's when the doctoral student, Gelembiuk, became involved. He's an unlikely journalistic sleuth. A 48-year-old who studies zoology at the University of Wisconsin, he teaches biology and researches invasive species.

For years, Gelembiuk has been using a website called Turnitin.com to catch students who plagiarize. In his experience, Gelembiuk says, plagiarists "never do it just once." After reading Shafer's column, he didn't buy Posner's apology. So he ran a half-dozen of the author's Daily Beast stories through the plagiarism site — as well as through software called Viper and Copyscape — and quickly came up with 11 more lifted sentences in three other Beast stories.

Shafer wrote another column, and on February 10, the Daily Beast accepted Posner's resignation. He again apologized, blaming the "warp speed of the Net" for his problems. He later explained he'd stolen only "the most mundane information." Shafer didn't buy it.

"You don't have to rob from Proust to qualify as a low-down plagiarist," Shafer wrote. "Even mundane information takes time and energy to collect and type up — sometimes more time and energy than it takes to toss off an original sonnet."

But even that excuse went out the window March 16, when New Times published Owen's discovery of eight stolen passages in Miami Babylon. Posner again admitted he stole them. But again he had a scapegoat: a new system of "trailing endnotes" that led him to undercredit Owen's work.

Now comes the new evidence turned up by New Times and Gelembiuk. For Miami Babylon, it seems Posner also borrowed from this publication, PBS, the Herald, Ocean Drive, and Men's Vogue. The pilfering seems to include both stand-alone sentences and longer passages.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink