It's like being back in the schoolyards of my youth, choosing up teams for baseball.
A couple of weeks ago, ace reporter Scott Schwebke stopped me in the newsroom. "Hey, Saal," he said. "Did you hear about the idiot who just got caught plagiarizing stuff from humor columnists all over the country?"
I shook my head. Curiously, for someone who works at a newspaper, I'm often the last one to hear about things.
Scott shrugged. "Well, you should check on the Internet and see if he took any of yours."
Scott followed up on our conversation by emailing me a link to an organization called the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. (I know, I had the very same thought: "They have a national society? For newspaper columnists? Seriously? These people can barely dress themselves in the morning and they managed to set up a society?")
On the NSNC website, columnist Charles Memminger detailed the sordid affair in an alert titled "Nationwide Theft of Humor Columns Exposed." Apparently, a relatively well-known Midwestern columnist by the name of Jon Flatland had been stealing humor columns from various writers around the country and passing them off as his own. He'd been doing this for years, and even won an award from the North Dakota Newspaper Association for one of his pilfered pieces. After his crimes came to light, he quietly disappeared in disgrace.
I held out for a couple of weeks, telling myself that NOBODY would be stupid enough to steal my stuff. But finally, curiosity got the better of me. I broke down and did the absolute most narcissistic thing one can do in this information age. I Googled myself.
Well, more specifically, I Googled a few lines from various columns over the years.
SBlt "Now, near as anyone can tell, fluoride is a chemical compound whose primary purpose -- when added to a municipality's drinking water -- is to enrage a small but incredibly vocal group of activists with really bad teeth."
* "Just one year ago, the 2002 Winter Olympic Games touched off the second-biggest celebration in Utah history. (The biggest: Church announces one wife is plenty.)"
* "The result is that Las Vegas is quickly morphing into a sort of Six Flags Over Sodom and Gomorrah."
* "Research suggests long-term space flight renders humans 'reproductively compromised.' Meaning, the people NASA should really be sending into space are folks like Lindsay Lohan. 'Cause that gene pool seriously needs to be drained. And backfilled."
* "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
OK, that last one might not have been mine. But the others? Classic stuff, right? I mean, who wouldn't want to steal it?
I'll tell you who. Jon Flatland, that's who. Quite possibly the most prolific serial plagiarizer of all time, and he turns up his nose at my weekly offerings.
Flashback to sixth grade, choosing teams on the baseball diamond after school. It all comes down to just two players left -- me, and the chubby red-headed kid with the inhaler.
"We'll take the wheezer. You get Saal."
"We don't want Saal."
"Yeah, but you need nine guys."
"Naw, we're good. We'll go with eight."
Ouch. It's pretty bad when they'd rather leave right field open than put you and your Teflon-coated baseball mitt out there. Or that they're willing to take an automatic out every ninth batter, rather than risk having you hit into yet another of your patented double -- or even triple -- plays.
Sorry, but it's hard not to take those sorts of things personally.
And now this: The journalistic equivalent of not just getting picked last, but not getting picked at all. Snubbed by a plagiarist. Apparently, they have their standards.
No real writer likes to see plagiarism happen, but don't kid yourself. Ninety-five percent of all the humor columnists in the country were secretly hoping they'd had at least one piece among those plagiarized by Flatland. And the other 5 percent are liars.
Since this story broke, plenty of people have been trying to get hold of this guy. They want to give him a piece of their mind, or ask him why he did it, or learn how in this Internet age he thought he could get away with it.
Me, I just wanna know the deal. What? My stuff's not good enough for you? How about if I'd included more folksy references to those wacky Midwesterners? Would that have helped?
In the end, the take-away message is quite clear, and it could actually make me a better writer: If I ever expect to be plagiarized, I'm going to have to start producing -- right here, right now -- some better source material.
Meh. Maybe next week.
Right fielder Mark Saal is available! Choose him for your softball team, at 801-625-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.