Fareed Zakaria

Dirtiest word in journalism: Plagiarist

Fareed Zakaria
Photo: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

Plagiarism. You learned what it is in high school, and you learned it was forbidden. Or at least, you learned you weren’t to get caught plagiarizing. It was a bigger temptation when I was in school because you could dig up obscure references at the library and the odds were pretty good that no one would ever match your writing to the original.

Things are different today. A few keystrokes on your keyboard brings you more source material than you can possibly deal with. And just as easily, someone else’s keystrokes can compare your writing to everything that’s ever been written. You’d be a fool to think you could get away with plagiarizing.

Why, then, would Fareed Zakaria, one of America’s most well-known journalists, indulge in such a thing?

When confronted Friday with the similarities between his gun control articles for Time and CNN and that of Jill Lepore for The New Yorker, Zakaria issued the following statement:

Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23 issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.

One could take that either as an apology and admission of guilt for deliberately plagiarizing, or as an apology for having made some sort of mistake in writing, note-taking or record-keeping that resulted in the lack of attribution. It’s frighteningly easy these days when working with electronic notes and composition to change, delete, drop, or otherwise scramble the contents of a text file. Could it be that’s what happened to Zakaria?

Time and CNN have suspended him for a month while the matter is under investigation and it’s possible — just possible — that whole thing was an accident, not an intentional violation of an ethic that we all learned in school and that journalists, in particular, are expected to observe scrupulously. No exceptions.

One of the most complete reports I’ve seen on what happened, with a comparison of Zakaria’s words and the original work, is on The Atlantic Wire. As can be seen in the comparisons, plagiarism needn’t be verbatim. It gets a bit more subjective than that, with similar text or a bit of paraphrasing being close enough to draw suspicion and condemnation. If two authors are quoting the same third person, how many different way are there to frame the quotation? Is there really anything new under the sun?

Newsbusters broke the story on Friday and the example they cited was as follows:

 Jill Lepore New Yorker article, April 23:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

Fareed Zakaria Time article, August 20:

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

I’ve admired and respected Zakaria for several years and I’ve often said as much on this blog. I’ve also mourned the apparent death of the journalistic ethics I learned so many years ago. When a star like Zakaria is brought down by the same sort of careless disregard that infects so many young writers today, it hurts and disappoints in a deeply personal way.

I’d like to withhold final judgment until the investigation is complete. But barring a detailed explanation of how this was an accident, I must assume the plagiarism was deliberate. And it will forever undermine my confidence in Zakaria. To me he will be be tainted, just as Dan Rather has been in the wake of the Bush documents debacle in 2004, and Doris Kearns Goodwin after her 2002 plagiarism scandal. Perhaps I’m just too idealistic, but these people violated more than my personal trust; they violated my professional code — our professional code. I can’t forgive that.

10 thoughts on “Dirtiest word in journalism: Plagiarist

  1. The ability to copy and paste is marvelous. When I first learned how to type it was of course on a manual typewriter and my brain consistently ran ahead of my fingers, so editing consumed a disproportionate part of my attention. I have wondered how well teachers cope with the new reality, of detecting plagiarism in the internet age. Just looking as Zakaria’s paragraphs above it is apparent that he made only a minimal effort to disguise his theft and he could have done the job better. I’ve been amazed at not just the quality of his work since discovering him this year, but its sheer volume. This would seem to explain it to some extent, but I think it was likely a rare crime.

    I have to think that Zakaria, like Doris Kernes Goodwin, is still an excellent writer. I remember the scandal involving Goodwin and being disappointed in her, but I have since appreciated her input on Meet The Press and other venues since then – she is a capable thinker despite her failing and I actually have admiration for perseverance.

    I once worked for a Marine Colonel who was unforgiving. He consciously recognized that quality in himself, that when any person or store or institution failed in any significant aspect, he wrote them off and had nothing more to do with them. By the time I knew him he had a long list and I always had the feeling that he might run out of prospects for perfection well before he died. Might it not be better if we simply recognized that people are not perfect and strive for openness as protection against the inevitable? None of us is perfect.

    1. I agree none of us is perfect. That was foremost in my mind as I wrote and I’m still struggling with it. Zakaria is an excellent writer and analyst, and one incident of plagiarism doesn’t mean his skill is any less. But it does, assuming it was intentional, call into question his work ethic and judgment. For me this will probably end up being something like DKG; eventually I’ll come around and admit I still like him and I still appreciate his understanding of the issues. But this is going to hang over him like a dark cloud for a very long time. It’s just inexplicable to me that someone at his level would plagiarize from one prominent magazine (a recent issue at that) for publication in another prominent magazine. Even a high school student would be more subtle than that!

  2. When I was an editorial intern for a well-known publication that I won’t name, while fact-checking an article, I discovered that a writer had plagiarized a great deal of his article from several different sources. When I brought my discovery to the managing editor, I was put through the ringer, made to go over the article several times both manually and electronically and highlight all the unattributed parts, and ultimately the writer got “a talking to” and still writes for the publication to this day. Of course, the plagiarized piece didn’t run, but still…

    So while I was deeply disappointed in Zakaria, and I can’t understand how professionals would do that, I’m actually not that surprised.

  3. WIth journalism, the bar is really high. People read and trust you to have things correct. Writers build audiences. True no one is perfect, but writers know what they are creating and if it is honestly done or not. This incident has damaged his reputation – it may never come back…there will always be that question lurking.

... and that's my two cents