Saturday, December 10, 2011

Coincidence or plagiarism for Jeff Stahler?

By Alan Gardner of The Daily Cartoonist.

The December 5 editorial cartoon by Columbus Dispatch cartoonist Jeff Stahler has a striking similarity to a 2009 New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress.

I asked Jeff for a response to which he’d only say, “my only explaination [sic] is that it’s a coincidence.”
This is the second coincidence this year. Last March, one of his cartoons was found to be very close to a fake headline written by Andy Borowitz which read, “New Study Finds iPad is Cure for Adultery; Owners ‘Stop Noticing Other People Altogether“. Jeff’s cartoon caption read, “New study: Smart phone users are less likely to commit adultery, since they’ve stopped noticing others around them.”
Jeff’s editors reviewed the matter and declared they believed it was a coincidence. Here’s what they told Jim Romenesko:
We investigated Mr. Borowitz’s allegation yesterday and today. What we know is that [Dispatch cartoonist] Jeff [Stahler] created the cartoon Wednesday, submitted it Thursday (the same day Borowitz’s piece appeared), and published it Sunday. Jeff was not familiar with Borowitz’s piece until Borowitz himself brought it to our attention. It appears to be a coincidence.
Unlike David Simpsonwho was caught lightboxing Jeff MacNelly cartoons with abandon, any of Jeff’s suspected cartoons are drawn in his own style and therefore harder to definitively prove to be cases of plagiarism.
That in mind, here are a couple more cases of similar cartoons between The New Yorker and Jeff’s work that were passed along to me.
Here’s a cartoon by Danny Shanahan that appeared in The New Yorker in 1999.

This Stahler cartoon ran in 2008, a decade later.

This cartoon by Robert Mankoff ran February 9, 2009 in The New Yorker.

Stahler touched on the same theme nine days later on February 18, 2009:

As a general rule, as long as the cartoonist isn’t light-boxing, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Even the ones cited above can be excused when looked at individually (the ‘nationalized’ cartoons are easy word gags based on the topic of the day). Collectively, however, the matter gets harder to explain away. Only Jeff knows for sure and the only on-the-record response he’s given me was that “it’s a coincidence.”

Jeff Stahler suspended as paper investigates cartoons
On a related note, Michael Cavna has talked to Robert Mankoff who is giving Jeff the benefit of the doubt.
“My guess is Stahler came up with the idea completely independently,” Mankoff told Comic Riffs. “I see things like this every week with different cartoonists submitting almost identical cartoons. Sometimes we’ve been on the other end of this being accused of plagiarism, when I know the cartoonist would never do that.
“It’s also possible that Stahler saw the Sipress cartoon and forgot completely about it and then came up with the idea thinking it was his. That also has happened,” Mankoff continued Monday. “Usually when it does, a little bell goes off warning you something is wrong – but not always.”

From the Poynter website:

Second visual plagiarism case may lead to ethics guidelines for editorial cartoonists by Bob Andelman

Does one confirmed case of visual plagiarism (Urban Tulsa Weekly’s David Simpson stealing from the late Jeff MacNelly) and one new alleged case (Columbus Dispatch’s Jeff Stahler panels looking and reading remarkably similar to David Sipress’s work in The New Yorker) mean it’s time for the nation’s editorial cartoonists to establish a professional canon of ethics specific to their line of work?
That’s the issue John Cole, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), and his board of directors is wrestling with this week following disclosure that Stahler may have lifted text and some visuals for his newspaper work. (Stahler’s work was indefinitely suspended from the Dispatch on Tuesday.)
“We called up a copy of our bylaws earlier today,” Cole said on Tuesday. “The board is deciding how we’re going to proceed with this.”
Obviously, no one approves of plagiarism; especially (not) the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. The question is, what is the role of the association in a situation like this? Is it the place of the Editorial Cartoonists to police or call out obvious examples or examples that its members perceive? The standard for plagiarism seems to be different for different people. Some people, it’s a direct copying of a cartoon. Other people, it’s using a similar gag or similar idea for a cartoon. There is a question of what exactly the role of the association would be.
The challenge for the AAEC in its response is not to overreact without knowing whether it is dealing with a brushfire or a wildfire.
“There is no conventional, set standard,” according to Cole. “When people say ‘plagiarism,’ plagiarism in the classic sense is one person directly knocking off another person’s work and passing it off as their own. Then there are degrees of that. We’re discussing putting together some sort of background. There is a long history; there are examples. We’re working with some of our members who are versed in the history of cartooning. At what point does tradition and influence bleed over into theft?” (Listen to entire interview with Cole.)
Editorial cartoonist Chip Bok, whose work is distributed by Creators Syndicate, worries that his friend Stahler may be feeling pressure to produce too much content, between his editorial cartooning for the Columbus Dispatch and his daily comic panel, “Moderately Confused,” distributed by Universal UClick for UFS.
Chip Bok editorial cartoon
Chip Bok wrote of this recent cartoon he drew, “It was based on a Don Wright Vietnam cartoon. You could be kind and call it an homage or cruel and call it plagiarism. I like it because it shows a guy who, in the name of the U.S. government, fucked up the very people’s lives he claimed to help. Same as the US military in the Vietnam cartoon.”
“Jeff doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to me who would deliberately plagiarize a cartoon,” Bok told me. “He has a heavy workload because he has a comic strip as well as an editorial cartoon. It may be that the pressure to meet a deadline caused him to consciously or probably subconsciously lift a gag from another cartoon. That’s his responsibility; carrying that much work, it’s up to him.
“I’ve been in that situation when you’re up against a deadline and you just draw something,” Bok continued. “I have drawn cartoons that were derivative of cartoons I’ve seen before and had no idea. Besides, it’s a crappy cartoon and you wish you hadn’t done it. We’re cartoonists and therefore we’re procrastinators and we’re always up against deadlines. Deadline pressure is a two-edged sword. It can get the juices going but it can also lead to things like this.” (Watch the Bok interview.) editor Alan Gardner broke news of the possible Stahler infraction on Tuesday. He told me that the evidence came from the same source who, a month earlier, demonstrated that Tulsa Urban Weekly cartoonist David Simpson had used a lightbox to copy Jeff MacNelly cartoons and call them his own. Gardner calls his source a “middle man” and not necessarily the original diviner of the improprieties.
“I was blind copied on an email that had a link to [Stahler's] cartoon about the resume and a link to the [David] Sipress cartoon,” Gardner said. “I forwarded that on to Stahler. I thought it was way too similar to be just a coincidence. I said, ‘What’s up with this? Do you have a response to this?’ … There is a back-channel within the community. The AAEC has a list group for their members. That email that I was blind copied on was heading into that group for discussion.” (Listen to entire interview with Gardner.)
The AAEC does not currently have either ethical guidelines or training programs for its members, but Cole says both are now under consideration.
I’ve been drawing cartoons for almost 20 years now and I’ve been hearing about David Simpson for ages. His story goes way back. Jeff is a different matter. He’s an established syndicated cartoonist and obviously some people have found some similarities between his cartoons and other cartoons in the past. I wouldn’t make a comparison between the two. I think some people, over time, have seen similarities between Jeff’s cartoons and other cartoons going back a matter of years. With David Simpson’s case, you had lightboxing. He would take a Jeff MacNelly cartoon, literally slap it on a lightbox and trace it. That is, of course, the gold standard of plagiarism, when you basically appropriate someone else’s image and claim it as your own.
I asked Gardner if he was concerned, after Simpson and perhaps Stahler, that visual plagiarism is widespread or if it’s just a fluke having two cases revealed so close together.
“It comes up, but rarely more than once a year,” he said. “It’s really tough to know. If you just took Stahler’s New Yorker cartoons, the ‘Nationalized Bank’ is an easy gag. It would be very unlikely that two cartoonists couldn’t come up with the same gag. I was just passed an email with a couple cartoons about the postal service being slow. Two cartoons, a mailman riding on a snail. They both ran in the past couple days by two notable syndicated cartoonists. These things happen. How do you know that it’s a genuine case of plagiarism or not? It’s really hard to know for sure who’s blatantly doing it and who just has the same creative idea…”
As for Cole and the AAEC, he doesn’t think editorial cartoonists start off bad. Sometimes they’re just drawn that way.
“Every cartoonist starts off basically learning [the business] for themselves,” he said. “When you’re 20 years old, learning how the business works, that’s how you start out. Hopefully, out of that, people develop their own styles. What are the nuances between that and David Simpson? That’s what we’re trying to look at right now.”
The basic cartoonist’s philosophy, Cole said, should be, ” ‘Originality good, plagiarism bad.’ It’s really that simple.”
Video and audio interviews for this piece:


Jeff Stahler has resigned from his staff postion at the Columbus Dispatch yesterday according to an email from his editor to Steve Myers at the Poynter Institute. Jeff’s work came under scrutinty this week after his Sunday cartoon was found to be strikingly close to a 2009 New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress. A couple other New Yorker cartoons were also found that were very similar prompting his editor Ben Marrison to suspend Jeff indefinitely while an investigation was made.

From Comic Riffs:

Posted at 12:28 PM ET, 12/10/2011

JEFF STAHLER QUITS: Columbus Dispatch cartoonist reportedly resigns amid plagiarism case

Five days after fresh accusations of plagiarism, political cartoonist Jeff Stahler has reportedly resigned from his Columbus Dispatch post.
Dispatch editor Ben Marrison told Poynter’s Steve Myers that Stahler quit Friday and “that is all we will have to say on this unfortunate matter.”
Early in the week, it came to Marrison’s attention that Stahler’s Monday cartoon was strikingly similar to a 2009 New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress. On Tuesday, the paper suspended Stahler as it conducted an “exhaustive investigation.”
Reached Saturday, Stahler had no comment on the news. On Monday, Stahler indicated that the similarity was a coincidence. (Sipress told Comic Riffs he had no comment.)
The latest case was the second time in seven months that accusations of plagiarism had swirled around the longtime Dispatch cartoonist. In May, humorist Andy Borowitz pointed to similarities between a satirical headline he wrote and a subsequent Stahler cartoon. The Dispatch decided at that time that the Borowitz/Stahler similarity was a “coincidence.”
“At some point, you have to admit that some artists have far too many ‘coincidences’ to write off,” Portland-based syndicated political cartoonist Matt Bors told Comic Riffs on Friday.
New Yorker Cartoon Editor Robert Mankoff told Comic Riffs on Monday that he initially gave Stahler “the benefit of the doubt” that it was a coincidence, but later told us that there appeared to be too many coincidences in this case. The Daily Cartoonist’s Alan Gardner posted two other New Yorker cartoons — in an interesting twist, both by Mankoff — that were similar to subsequent cartoons by Stahler.
In the bigger picture, Bors thinks that too many people in journalism have historically turned a blind eye to cartoon theft of idea and image, saying that they “take the Penn State approach to plagiarism.”
“I think [cartoon] plagiarism is overly tolerated,” Pulitzer-winning political animator Mark Fiore told Comic Riffs on Friday, “but it is also harder to prove than in other forms of journalism since cartoons so often veer into the ‘homage’ and ‘tip-of-the-pen’ territory.”
Stahler’s is the second plagiarism case to hit the editorial cartooning industry in a matter of weeks: In late October, David Simpson of the Urban Tulsa Weekly was accused of serially plagiarizing the late cartooning legend Jeff MacNelly. Simpson — who was fired by the Tulsa World in 2005 for plagiarirzing a cartoon by the Hartford Courant’s Bob Englehart — announced in the wake of the latest allegations that he was “retiring from the editorial cartooning business.”
Of the two recent cartoon plagiarism scandals, Fiore tells Comic Riffs: ”It’s sad, maddening and frustrating all rolled into one.”

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