Did Mike Sager at Esquire Plagiarize Michael J. Mooney?

Michael J. “Mike” Mooney already pointed out a while back that Esquire was naming Rais Bhuiyan one of its “Americans of the Year.” Mike, of course, wrote a feature for D Magazine about Bhuiyan and his fight to stop the execution of the man who shot Bhuiyan in the face. So I was eager to see how Mike Sager handled the story for Esquire. When I tracked it down and read it, I was taken aback. Sure, sure, Sager’s story follows almost the exact structure that Mike’s does. That’s no big deal. Mike’s a good writer, and he figured out the best way to tell the tale. No surprise that Sager, also a great writer, would study the puzzle and come to the same conclusion.

No, here’s what got me: when Bhuiyan went down to Austin to try to stop the execution in court, Mike went with him. He was the only writer who saw the drama unfold. There weren’t any other reporters with Bhuiyan in Austin. Just Mike. And Mike happened to be there when, for a brief moment, Bhuiyan got to talk to his assailant on the phone before he was put to death. The conversation was cut short and didn’t go as Bhuiyan had hoped it would. Here’s how Mike — the only writer present — told it:

Their second encounter, like their first, was brief and awkward. When he put the phone down, Bhuiyan looked stirred.

“I didn’t get to tell him why,” he said, his voice straining. “I never got the chance to tell him why I forgive him. That was the whole point, and I didn’t get to say it.” He looked out the window. “This is not what I wanted.”

No surprise, but Sager relayed the same anecdote. The phone conversation was recorded by a documentary filmmaker who was in Huntsville, speaking on the phone with the assailant; the filmmaker patched the conversation together via speakerphone. I’m sure the filmmaker let Sager listen to the recording, too. But what’s interesting is how Sager handled the scene after Bhuiyan hung up the phone:

The line went dead. Bhuiyan looked frustrated. “I never got the chance to tell him why I forgive him,” he lamented. “That was the whole point, and I didn’t get to say it.” He looked out the window. “This is not what I wanted.”

At 8:53 P.M., Mark Stroman was put to death by lethal injection.

As far as I can tell, Sager italicized two words. That was his work. But the rest of the work, that was Mike’s. How did Sager know that Bhuiyan looked frustrated? He wasn’t there. Okay, sure, others were present, and Sager could have asked them to describe Bhuiyan’s demeanor. And maybe those same people have perfect recall and could relay Bhuiyan’s quote to Sager exactly as Mike wrote it down and published it in D Magazine. But the part where Bhuiyan looks out the window before finishing his sentence? Mike saw that. Sager didn’t. And when he cut and pasted those sentences, he should have given Mike credit.

Tsk, tsk.

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