History Thread: Attack of the Pod Bros

For those of you who pay attention to such things, there’s been quite the kerfuffle on History Twitter over the past week. A short version, along with some pertinent tweets and commentary.

Jonathan M. Katz, a journalist and historian, published a book in January 2022 called Gangsters of Capitalism which is a biography of Marine-turned-antiwar activist Smedley Butler. The book, incidentally, is quite good.

Chilluminati, a history-and-conspiracy podcast by Michael Martin and Jesse Cox, recently published an episode which discusses Butler and his role in foiling the Business Plot of 1934. Their podcast is thinly sourced, with most of its credited sources easily-googled online pieces and Wikipedia articles, with no reference to Katz or other authors (Jules Archer, Hans Schmidt, etc.) who have written about Butler.

Katz was notified of the podcast and noticed that they reproduced entire passages of his writings on the subject – both the book and a Rolling Stone article which appeared in advance of the book’s publication – without credit. Katz tweeted asking why they didn’t credit him, the podcasters doubled down and an angry Twitter exchange ensued. Katz provided a lengthy list of close, some near-verbatim paraphrases of his work (which he expanded into an article on his blog), which is pretty hard to refute despite the Chilluminati clowns claiming they’d never even heard of him.

The fascinating, or infuriating part: Chillumnati’s apparently large and rabid fanbase jumped all over Katz, accusing him of throwing a tantrum, not understanding what plagiarism is or just saying variants of “u mad bro.” Katz posting an angry Goodfellas gif (“Fuck you, pay me”) was interpreted as a literal demand for payment by many, including evidently the podcasters themselves. Even though he’s commented that he’d settle for a sincere apology and addendum either to the existing podcast or a future one.

The arguments the pod bros have made in defense of the podcast stealing Katz’s work (you can see some of the worst examples collected here) are somehow both consistent (in the sense that they’re repeated over and over again) and nonsensical. Other historians and journalists on Twitter haven’t been remotely impressed by these defenses, but what do they know about their field of expertise? Let’s run down the most common arguments:

  • The passages aren’t exactly verbatim so it’s not plagiarism. No, but as Katz demonstrates, there is very close phrasing consistent throughout the podcast, including unique phrasings (like translating the French fascist group Croix de Feu as Fiery Cross, when most English resources translate it more literally as Cross of Fire) that could only come from Katz’s work. The turns of phrase used do not appear in any of the meager sources they cite. More specifically, they reference Katz (albeit not by name) in the podcast, referring to a visit he made to Haiti where he interviewed local historians about Butler’s role in the American occupation of that country.
    There is, admittedly, a gray area between what’s termed “patchwriting” (which is not usually considered plagiarism, although it’s viewed less than favorably by most historians) and outright theft, something which this column has explored before. But this would seem to cross it pretty clearly.
  • You can’t copyright historical facts! No, but the interpretation, phrasing and presentation of those facts are, well, pretty much what history and nonfiction writing is. “Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation” is an historical fact. “Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a crucial step on the road to abolishing slavery” and “Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a purely symbolic war gesture,” however, are different presentations and interpretations of the same historical fact. This is History 101, people.
  • If Katz thinks he was plagiarized, he should sue! Let’s leave aside the Trumpian nature of this “see you in court!” defense. Plagiarism, strictly speaking, isn’t illegal. It is considered a major ethical lapse and, if one is an academic, student or journalist, can lead to loss of employment or other sanctions. But you’re not going to jail for it. These Twitter warriors seem to confuse plagiarism with copyright infringement, which is a similar though distinct charge involving taking someone’s work wholesale and directly presenting it as their own.
  • It’s just a podcast bro, lighten up! It’s a podcast that nets its creators $146,000 a year and, judging from the response Katz’s criticism generated on Twitter, a fairly popular one. Plus at least one of the hosts, Jesse Cox, likes to burnish his credentials as a former history teacher who knows full well how to cite and present facts (but thinks Wikipedia is a valid source? I guess). You can’t have it both ways: the podcaster is an historian, but also it’s just a podcast, bro! And as Katz himself notes, podcasts are notorious for cribbing factual material from writers without attribution. The argument that podcasts shouldn’t be held to any standards at all is pretty specious, to be polite, and invites all manner of piratical behavior.

The other “arguments” are outright trolling and insults of the “u mad bro” variety and don’t merit a response. (Especially the commenters who say that Katz is only angry about this because he’s autistic, apparently the cool new way of calling someone a “r*tard” on the Internet.) Certainly the podcasters, who have alternated between mocking his complaints, insisting that he’s harassing them and even threatening legal action against Katz (threatening to sue him for slander or defamation, charges which are nearly as difficult to prosecute in the US as plagiarism), aren’t doing themselves any favors. Perhaps this started as an innocent mistake – maybe Cox or whomever put this show together read Katz’s article and forgot about it – but that would be easy enough to fix without doubling down and making yourself look like a petty, thin-skinned ass.

Or, to put it in terms these folks would understand, “U mad, bro?”