Highway robbers of the knowledge economy
A podcast I’d never heard of before stole my work. I’m not alone.
Edited by Sam Thielman
See below the story for an update.
A year ago, after half a decade of original research and reporting in nine countries on two continents to uncover the full story of Smedley Butler and the rise of America’s empire, I knew my work wasn’t done. I asked my friend and research editor extraordinaire Rob Liguori to start assembling a team of fact-checkers. I wanted them to try to dismantle my roughly 140,000-word manuscript — to test all of my claims and to check and double-check all of my sources, again and again, until we were sure we had gotten everything as right as possible.
Crucially, I asked them1 — as any good fact-checker will do anyway, and Rob is the best — to check my manuscript for any whiff of unintentional plagiarism. Any time there was a missing source, they made me add it. Any time there was wording that was even close to that of one of what would ultimately be 53 pages of sources and endnotes — even if I cited that source, by name, in the text — I tore up the sentence or paragraph and rewrote it to craft a new idea, so it would be my original work.
This process alone took several months of full, often infuriating days. And it wasn’t cheap. In the end, I paid my four professional fact-checkers over $14,000. My publisher didn’t foot any of that bill; I have and had no hope of making any of that money back.
I’m not telling you this story because it’s exceptional. It’s really, really common. It’s the kind of step any ethical author takes when writing a nonfiction book — a pursuit in which we typically expect to break even, at best. We aren’t in this to get rich. (More about that below.)
Flash forward to this week. Over the weekend, I started getting Google Alerts about a new podcast about Smedley Butler. It wasn’t a podcast I recognized, much less was one of the dozens I’d gone on since the release of my book, Gangsters of Capitalism, in January, but that in itself didn’t set off alarm bells. People have of course talked about Smedley Butler before, and will do so without referencing me again. So I put a pin in it. On Tuesday though, I started getting more alerts about it — there were some Reddit threads, people seemed to be taking notice — so I opened up my podcast app and had a listen.
What I heard was a sloppy, error-filled pastiche that included passages that were amazingly similar to my recently released book. For instance, here’s an excerpt from Chilluminati Podcast No. 162: “The Mysterious Smedley Butler”:
And here’s a paragraph from the first page of Gangsters of Capitalism:
Covering a few of the same details, such as nicknames? OK, that happens. (Though “Fighting Hell-Devil Marine” only shows up in a handful of sources, and none of the seven that the Chilluminati guys included in their show notes.) Repeating a Teddy Roosevelt quote that has appeared in a few other sources on Butler? All right, that could happen too — though identifying him as FDR’s cousin in the same sentence is something that seems to have only previously appeared in my book. (Yes, I checked. And, again, that quote doesn’t appear in any of the sources they listed in their show notes.)
But for someone to have independently looked over the entire corpus of material about Butler’s life, chosen those five specific details, and randomly put them together in the same paragraph — repeating the extremely specific locution about “books … written about him. Hollywood loved/adored him”? The odds aren’t good.
Still, I couldn’t be sure. So I listened on. There were other close matches of language from Gangsters: suspiciously similar references to Butler having protected “friendly” dictators “to protect American investments”; a fairly unique translation of the name of the French fascistic veterans’ group, Croix de Feu, as “Fiery Cross” (I remember going back and forth about which translation to use; Wikipedia, which the Chilluminati cited as a source, gives it as the more common “Cross of Fire”). There were also repetitions of relatively obscure Butler quotes given prominent play in my book. (And, crucially, no others that the main host of the episode, Jesse Cox, seems to have found himself.)
There was more like this:
Once again, that wording — with the novel pairing of the French six février and the March on Rome as twin inspirations, and above all the unusual use of the word “blending” — was original to my book. (Again, we checked.) Even the overly simplistic checker at plagiarismdetector.net, which often misses paraphrase plagiarism, had no trouble detecting that one:2
Then, at roughly the 1:05:00 mark, Cox gave away his whole game:
Like, um, one of the articles I was reading about him, this person went to Haiti and they asked, “Do you know who this guy is?” And they're like, “Oh, hell yeah, that dude was tip of the spear from when the Marines came in and usurped our democratic government …”
That isn’t a random detail. It’s about me. Cox, belatedly, admitted so in a tweet — while claiming, improbably given the close resemblance of his script to my book in multiple places, that he’d never heard of me until I called him out for his plagiarism on Twitter.
And incredibly (or not), the lightly veiled reference to me comes in yet another example of Jesse Cox’s paraphrase plagiarism. Look at them side by side:
The odds that Cox just happened to have the same ideas in exactly the same order that I put them in my book is nil. There is more of a chance that Smedley Butler dug himself out of his grave, booked a ticket to wherever these podcasters live, and whispered those sentences to Cox in person, than that he would have randomly and independently put together that chain himself. (The “article” he is referring to was likely the pre-publication excerpt of Gangsters published in Rolling Stone, which I believe contains all the material he stole.)
What’s more, talking about what other people in other countries remember about America’s empire in general and Smedley Butler, in particular, was the core original innovation of my book. It’s what I spent five years and emptied my bank account doing. This is an open and shut, prima facie case of plagiarism, as any history professor or journalist can tell you. (And many did.)
The Chilluminati guys deny the allegations. Cox claimed in a tweet that he must have read and forgotten to cite a third-party source that talked about someone going to Haiti and asking the people there about Smedley Butler, only to remember belatedly that it was me. He has never offered the name of this supposed article. I asked him in an email for his source about the “Marine chant” as well, to which he also didn’t respond. (For anyone curious, I was told about the cadence from a friend who’d been in the Corps and confirmed it with a published set of lyrics.)
I offered both Cox and his colleague Michael Martin a chance to give their version of events, or any kind of explanation for the remarkable similarity of multiple paragraphs of their script to the wording of my book and/or my Rolling Stone excerpt. Martin said in an email: “We have never read nor heard of your book until you went public rather aggressively on twitter this morning.” He then refused to give any further sources other than Wikipedia. (Again, the seven sources listed in the show notes do not include many details that show up in both the pod and my book, nor similar passages to those that they appear to have plagiarized from me.3) Martin also invited me, multiple times, to hire a lawyer. Cox did not respond to my email.
This is a widespread problem. As the appetite for podcasts balloons, listener (and advertiser) demand far exceeds the number of ethical journalists, documentarians, and other nonfiction specialists available to even talk about their own reporting, let alone do original work. Unearthing material, assembling and editing down facts, figuring out what’s true and what isn’t, and coming up with something original to say about it all is hard.4 It is far easier to crack open someone else’s book, sit down around a mic with a couple friends, and gush about this cool new thing you just learned.
The off-the-cuff, holy shit bro can you believe this aesthetic obscures how lucrative these podcasts can be. “Chilluminati” alone will bring its creators over $146,000 this year, according to the monthly figures posted on its Patreon page. They also sell ads — the sponsors of the plagiarized Butler episode included Talkspace and HelloFresh. Jesse Cox hosts half a dozen other podcasts as well, mostly about gaming: His personal Patreon lists only the number of subscribers, but given his listed tiers he personally pulls down an additional $84,500 to $422,700 a year, minus Patreon’s cut. That’s a lot of money for reading Wikipedia, and at worst reading someone else’s work and passing it off as his own.
A lot of examples of other shady podcasters plagiarizing journalists came my way during yesterday’s fracas:
In 2017, a podcast called The Dollop did a live, ticketed performance of a story plagiarized from an article by Slate editor Josh Levin (which he later expanded into a book titled The Queen). Like the Chilluminati bros and their fans did to me, the Dollop responded that “historical facts are not copyrightable” and that everything they were doing was “fair use” — ignoring the significant amount of work Levin had done to unearth those facts and polish them into storytelling in the first place. As Levin correctly said at the time: “But that legalistic debate misses the point IMO. Whether it’s technically infringement or not, whether it’s fair use or not, this behavior from The Dollop is certainly unethical/ungenerous/rude/shitty.”
Historian Michael G. Vann was scrolling an app one day when he found a pod called “The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre of 1902” — the title of a paper that was the basis for his book The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease And Modernity In French Colonial Vietnam. It turned out that not only had a podcaster stolen his work, but another podcaster in Australia had as well. (That one was called, wait for it, “The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt!” The exclamation point means it wasn’t plagiarism.5) He tells me he called them out on Twitter, and that “a very curious Zoom interview” followed.
Probably the most notorious case to date is that of “Crime Junkie,” a podcast hosted by Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat. The journalist Cathy Frye listened to an episode about the 2002 killing of a 13-year-old girl and recognized that it was based on her exclusive reporting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. She put them on blast on Facebook and threatened legal action. As other podcasters came forward to accuse Crime Junkie of stealing their work, the podcasters removed “several” episodes from their site, according to the New York Times.
In a case involving a major news outlet — NPR — historian Sarah Milov’s book, The Cigarette: A Political History, was used as the basis for an episode of Here & Now, co-produced with “BackStory,” a podcast from the University of Virginia, without ever saying Milov’s name or book title during the broadcast. Because adults with a shred of ethics were involved, NPR, WBUR, and BackStory apologized to Milov, and recorded a second episode featuring her and her work.
Author Brendan I. Koerner recounted multiple cases of podcasters and YouTubers shamelessly stealing his years of work, including his book The Skies Belong to Us. In that case, the creator addressed his “grievance by tacking a 30-second shout-out onto the start of the 110-minute episode—an episode that spoils every plot twist in the book.” (That’s an example of the kind of “private” resolution that the podcasters in my case also claim to have favored — since it would cost them nothing and leave the record of their plagiarism undocumented for the public.)
In his thread, Koerner said this:
The economic reality — that you can make significantly more money ripping off a book than you typically ever will by writing a book — flips the power dynamic most people expect on its head. Formerly fancy accolades and bylines in big-name publications are not worth nearly as much — in terms of money, power, or influence — as a huge follower count and a ferocious online fandom.
I lost some cred, among the pod’s fans and others, when I ended my initial thread pointing out the plagiarism with a demand to “Take the episode down. And pay me.” It was a jokey (if admittedly angrily so) reference to a famous line from Goodfellas that had been making the rounds the day before following the death of Paul Sorvino (RIP).6 But it helped convince at least some people, as one commenter took the time to email me, that I am a “money-grabbing (sic) one with no interest whatsoever on enlightenment or sharing of information as an artist.”
That gets the whole thing backward. What I want is for people not to steal each other’s (including my) hard work to turn around and sell — for money! And that if they do so, that they own up to having done it, and to make amends when they get caught. That’s the only way to safeguard the “sharing of information.” They were also the expectations when I came up in journalism twenty years ago, and they’re the expectations I still operate under today.
What has changed over those twenty years is that the institutions that used to protect journalists, authors, and such (once “creatives,” now the more deific “creators”) are gone. Many are left out here as freelancers, trying to string projects, poor-paying assignments, and subscription newsletters (like this one!) together, while trying to keep up the ethical standards necessary for our profession and frankly society to function.
And now we have to watch our work get stolen by people with no ethics, no morals, and no understanding of how knowledge is actually produced. We are also doing so without institutional protection, and in many cases without even a regular salary to count on. The law isn’t much of a refuge either — changing a few words or the order of sentences doesn’t cure plagiarism, but it can get a plagiarist off the hook if the only bar is blatant copyright infringement. The Chilluminati guys know that — it’s why they keep taunting me to bring a lawyer into the fight. They, like their fellow gangsters of capitalism, feel secure hiding behind the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
As Koerner said, and I keep repeating, creating a wholly new work of nonfiction is long and arduous, and does not carry much of a material reward. Why go through all of that — read literally hundreds of books, dig through multiple archives, literally climb mountains (in my case), and conduct countless interviews just to formulate hard-won arguments that, if you do it right, will sound obvious in retrospect — if your work can be ripped off by someone who claims that “history is publicly available!” and “oh, anyway, I was just talking with my friends!” and then try to claim that they never even read the book they obviously copied from in the first place. At some point, authors will stop writing. Genuinely creative people will stop producing knowledge. All we’ll have left are a clutch of mediocre dudes sitting around a microphone, with no new stories to tell.
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Update, 8/2/22, 1:15 a.m. ET:
Thanks to a human-edited transcript from rev.com and a friend with Turnitin, the case that Chilluminati plagiarized Gangsters has just been proven beyond all doubt. At 1:06:35, Jesse Cox lists six of the countries that Butler invaded:
What’s important here is the order of the countries. (That’s Turnitin’s automatic highlighting; the footnoted number refers to the Rolling Stone excerpt of Gangsters.) It’s the exact same order as in my book:
More precisely, according to Google, it is the order that is only found in my book. There are two hits, all time, for naming even just the five countries highlighted in both screenshots above in that order and in that way. One is my Rolling Stone excerpt. The other is my book.
Which stands to reason: There is no reason to have them in that order! It isn’t chronological (if it was, Panama would come after Honduras and Mexico would come before Haiti). It isn’t geographic (it zooms north, then south, then northeast, etc). It isn’t even a comprehensive list!7 It’s just some of the countries I thought representative, in the random order that sounded best to my ear at the time. The odds that those six countries’ names would be randomly put in that order is 720 to 1, or 0.13%. The odds of randomly choosing them out of the ten countries Butler invaded and putting them in that order is one in 151,200, or 0.0006%.
Add in the fact that the lists are bracketed with identical words — “plunder,” “and more” — and there you have it. Computer-confirmed, copy/paste-style plagiarism. I renewed my request for a correction and apology via email. Cox, once again, did not respond.
7/27/22, 10:12 p.m. ET - Corrected a few typos. Also corrected that The Dollop podcast plagiarized Josh Levin’s article which later became The Queen (as the book wasn’t out yet).
8/1/22, 1:43 p.m. ET - Updated with a better, human-generated transcript of the podcast, which enabled me to do a side-by-side comparison of the last example and tighten the language that follows. Also clarified that I tried to start a conversation with both Cox and the podcast privately via email, per their requests. Also added to footnotes about further confirmation from TurnItIn, and an apparent podcast fan’s edit to the Smedley Butler Wikipedia page, below.
Rob, Jamie Fisher, Jane Ackermann, and C.J. Lotz, if you’re wondering. Hire them all, they’re great.
The link provided by plagiarismdetector.net goes to a version of my Gangsters excerpt that ran in Rolling Stone, via an aggregator called bunkhistory.org. Note that I corrected Cox’s error: he mistakenly refers to Mussolini’s bloodless Fascist coup d’état as the “march of Rome,” possibly due to his ignorance of the history he’s reading for the first time. The match with my Rolling Stone excerpt (without cleaning up his error) was also confirmed by the plagiarism detector TurnItIn.
On July 29, an anonymous editor added one of those details — Butler’s lesser-known nickname of “The Fighting Hell-Devil Marine” to the Smedley Butler Wikipedia page — after I’d challenged the podcast’s fans to find it in any of their admitted sources. (In fact, the editor added it as the incomplete version of the nickname that Cox mistakenly said on air.) The only previous contribution to the site from that IP address were a series of April 2022 edits of the page Horizon Forbidden West, a popular video game that Cox has featured on his channels in the past. (Added 8/1/22)
Examples of podcasts that do this and do it right include Know Your Enemy, 5-4, Left Anchor, The Dig, and Time To Say Goodbye. There are plenty of others.
This is sarcasm, I’m being sarcastic.
In case anyone missed the reference, I also included a gif of Sorvino slicing garlic during the prison scene. Though it seems a lot of people also missed that.
cf Hans Schmidt’s Maverick Marine, p. 1, where he gives a comprehensive list of all Butler’s overseas duty stations in chronological order.