I am a freelance journalist for the weekly San Diego Reader, where, during the last seven years, my profiles, narrative nonfiction, and investigative articles have appeared. This past spring, the Reader published my 12,000-word cover profile of Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza is an Indian-American immigrant who is one of America’s prominent conservative authors as well as a skilled debater and right-wing pundit.
D’Souza is best known for two books: Illiberal Education (1991), which attacked affirmative action and political correctness on campus, and The End of Racism (1995), a book still mired in debate because of D’Souza’s claims that the economic disadvantage of African-Americans are due to the “pathologies of black culture.”
In the first paragraph of my piece, I wrote that he, his wife, and daughter live “in a very big house” in Fairbanks Ranch, a community second only to Rancho Santa Fe as San Diego’s most exclusive. I reported that D’Souza has made a lot of money at the American Enterprise Institute as resident scholar. I reported on other money he earned. And I reviewed the many controversies surrounding his work, commenting once or twice about his writing style. My aim was to give the fullest picture I could of him, his background and his conservatism.
The article appeared in print–the cover featured a Chuck Close-like colorized close-up of D’Souza’s photo–under the title, “The Controversialist.” The piece also appeared on the Reader’s website, though I own the copyright. A week later, cover and text were on D’Souza’s personal website. I was surprised, for he had not asked my permission.
At once I noticed the phrase “in a very big house” was missing from the first paragraph. I read on. Two paragraphs were gone in which I had criticized one of his recent commentaries. It was a column he wrote about Democrats: because they supported gay rights, they were now the party of “bestiality” and sexual deviance. I read further and found more eviscerations–the paragraphs describing his wife and his home were gone; so, too, was my reporting of his earnings during the 1990s, which he later disputed. Comments by scholars who differed with him and comments by his friends on the Right were left in.
Still, it was clear: D’Souza had combed through the piece, taking out things he didn’t like. He didn’t write a letter to the Reader seeking clarification of my reporting on his income. Instead, he censored my piece, then brazenly put it on his website.
I don’t know what authors feel when they’ve been plagiarized by other writers–certainly anger and violation. D’Souza’s act for me was emotionally no different, though it seemed the opposite of being ripped off. It was a kind of reverse plagiarism where instead of being copied without attribution I was being edited without permission.
Of course, writers are edited by editors, their leads refocused, their endings reduced; whole paragraphs often disappear. But for a writer who is the subject of a profile to edit another writer’s work, then put it on his website without declaring it is “used by permission,” or, what would be accurate, “used by permission and edited to my liking,” is galling to say the least.
What to do? First, I demanded (via email) that he remove it. D’Souza did not. Instead, he told me, in what he describes as a “cordial tone,” that he thought the publicity would be good for us both. And, naturally, since it contained personal things (things he revealed to me on two long visits to his home and a trip to Texas to hear him speak), he would rather not have them on his site. Again, no permission asked, no apology offered. He suggested I contact him so we could find a “solution.” Perhaps we could just say it’s been “abridged.”
That word really pissed me off. An abridgement suggests making cuts at the end or making cuts approved of by the author.
My temperature up, I sought a lawyer to write a letter citing copyright law and threatening a lawsuit. I pursued legal action, in part, because I didn’t want to deal with D’Souza directly: I felt that would only dilute the principle: this was his theft, and he wanted me, his victim, to arbitrate it for him.
While the lawyer drafted the letter, I realized that I, too, had fallen into the Web’s porousness, the widespread looting of intellectual property without regard to copyright that goes on. D’Souza, a Republican committed to a core belief in the principle of private property, who often touts Bush’s “ownership society,” adopted the self-serving notion that anything on the web belongs to anyone, like toys in a sandbox. People could download or post a person’s work as they liked, music or porn being the most abused examples. As the originator, I got nothing but the proposition that I should be a good sport and share my work.
In my email telling him to remove my article, I told D’Souza that had he asked me to put a link on his site to the Reader’s site where the piece is archived, then fine. (Others have and I’ve granted it.) But D’Souza never asked. He assumed. His chief assumption–that I wouldn’t mind his parsing my story–rankled me no end.
When he got the lawyer’s letter, toothily spelling out the statutory terms for what he had done wrong and for what payment he might be liable, I got yet another galling email from him.
In it, D’Souza blamed me for over-reacting. He wrote again that he thought I wouldn’t mind the publicity and that his reasons for not asking permission and for “suggesting a solution” are still valid. “Is this the way you deal with people on a regular basis, by writing them indignant letters and then, ignoring all attempts at dialog and compromise, following up with legal threats? What kind of weird behavior is this?”
Incredible! I am robbed of $1000 and, to adjudicate, the robber chooses the system of justice he prefers–namely, that we divide up the money because my reaction to being robbed is, well, just too weird for the robber to have to deal with.
Still, after D’Souza’s petty attempt to make his crime the equal of my “behavior,” he agreed to remove the piece from his website. Which he did. But not before, as a friend suggested, he generated controversy and used it to serve his self-interest.
Yes, we are a nation of laws, and laws do protect us. But, in this instance, D’Souza has superceded the law by adopting what I would call the law of the righteous, where self-interest is king. The law of the righteous says that it’s more important to have faith that you’re right, than to be right by some objective or ethical standard you would share with others.
We see the law of righteousness operating everywhere these days, particularly in Washington: in a morally illegitimate invasion of and war on Iraq; in the Bush administration-sanctioned censoring of scientific documents on global warming; in Duke Cunningham’s insistence that since he’s never smoked a marijuana cigarette his real estate transactions are beyond reproach.
In the end, D’Souza removed his censored version–as the law and I demanded–and then, after reading the permissions statement on the Reader’s website, received permission to put a link to my article on his site. There it sits alongside the irony that he could have gotten permission the day it was published to do this: had he asked.
THOMAS LARSON can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org