Journalism’s Ugly Little Plagiarism Problem: What we talk about when we talk about Fareed Zakaria

Kirk: “Well, there it is. War. We didn’t want it, but we’ve got it.”

Spock: “Curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.”

– Stark Trek, “Errand of Mercy,” aired March 23, 1967

Last week marked 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Germans took to the streets and celebrated the emotional anniversary by releasing 7,000 helium balloons to a wintry sky. There were light shows. There were Peter Gabriel songs. There was even an appearance by Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Last week, too, marked the toppling of another venerable monument to political posterity, this one man-shaped: on Nov. 8, Newsweek publicly called into question the authenticity of seven stories filed by journalist, Columbia University adjunct professor, and lionized public thinker Fareed Zakaria.

Newsweek has established that this article does not meet editorial standards,” reads a note affixed to one of the pieces; the warnings go on to note that Zakaria’s work borrows extensively from other sources without proper attribution.

Newsweek owes much of the muckraking credit to two anonymous bloggers who described themselves to the outlet as simple “news junkies” bent on spotlighting incidences of plagiarism in mainstream media. The bloggers claim to have uncovered all sorts of questionable borrowing in the prominent journalist’s body of work.

It’s not hard to swallow. After all, these aren’t the first accusations of indecent appropriation made against Zakaria and his work. The troubles started oh-way back in 2012, when an allegation of plagiarism prompted TIME and CNN to investigate whether an article on gun control written by Zakaria borrowed just a bit too blatantly from other sources, who had been credited incompletely, and sometimes not at all.

Zakaria apologized for the gaffe, calling it a “terrible mistake.”

Since then, mutterings of doubt have poured out from our biggest media mouthpieces like cockroaches skittering from an old, rusty toaster. Among the inquisitors: Esquire, The Week, and The Washington Post, all of whom have either reported on the allegations or added corrections and warnings to their own Zakaria articles.

Even Slate has hopped on the Dubiety Train, calling the journalist out for a column he wrote about mixed drinks a decade-and-a-half-ago. The piece is now preceded by an Editor’s note that reads, “This piece does not meet Slate’s editorial standards, having failed to properly attribute quotations and information drawn from Max Rudin’s history of the martini, which appeared in American Heritage in 1997. Slate regrets the error.”

 

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At first blush, it’s tempting to commend our media gatekeepers for such unemotionalized transparency. It is, after all, exactly what the American public has come to expect from its media giants: a quick and unreserved willingness to cast from the fold those who flout the truthiness mandate.

It’s the unspoken bargain struck anew among journalists, editors and readers each day: When you pick up The New York Times, you don’t spend your time worrying that some sloppy writer might be blasting you with hot air. You assume that you are in good hands, and you proceed accordingly, focusing on the facts and not on the procurement of said facts.

There’s just one little problem: the vast majority of these media outlets have been just as quick to forgive Zakaria his plagiaristic peccadilloes as they have been to accuse him in the first place.

In 2012, TIME and CNN permitted Zakaria to resume filing stories under their banners after a piddling six day-suspension, insisting that the plagiarism had been unintentional.

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg called the most recent round of offenses “minor, penny-ante-stuff”, and the accusations “ridiculous”.

Zakaria’s sins have been swept under the rug by the bristly broom of a hundred mitigating factors: he didn’t mean to; the mistakes were mostly related to improper attribution; he said he was sorry; he hasn’t done it again since.

To be sure, there are persuasive reasons to argue for a lighter punitive hand when addressing the missteps of contemporary journalists: they are incredibly overworked and ghastly underpaid, they’ve devoted themselves to a noble and difficult posting in which truths are notoriously tough to pin down, many labor under a workload that was, in happier and more profitable times, relegated to at least three full-time staff.

But these arguments fall flat in the face of the larger picture of our culture’s treatment of those who evade and deceive. So, too, is the time-investment of educators grossly undervalued, yet those who fudge test scores to meet questionably calibrated national standards are treated with embittered contempt. As they should be.

The guy’s got a PhD and his own CNN television show. He’s even an adjunct professor at one of our nation’s most venerated universities! He ought to have known far, far better.

 

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To complicate matters even more, all of this is playing out in a media landscape dismantling and recorrelating itself with the voracity of an atom smasher.

There once existed an unbreachable wall between the general public and the cold, hard facts of whatever story came across the transom, and only journalists were granted passage to move freely between the two sides. We held them to incredibly high standards in accordance with this position of authority. We paid them well (or at least well enough). We accorded them the full and unhesitating public trust and they returned the favor with rigorously fact-checked stories and an almost-sacred reverence for the commission.

There was also a time when the author of a breaking news story, or even a fluff piece about wet martinis, was as important as the story itself. The question, “According to whom” was inalienable from the cold, hard facts of the story. That is to say that the general reading public couldn’t alienate itself from its information sources even if it tried, and most readers wouldn’t have thought to try.

Those old ways have largely been rendered obsolete by shrinking newspaper, magazine, and television journalism budgets, plus a growing retinue of untrained DIY bloggers and citizen journalists who have gleefully emerged to fill in the information gaps, sometimes preferring to work anonymously. The keys to public commentary have been unceremoniously wrested from those old guard gatekeepers by a skeptical, information-hungry public who have thrown open journalism’s rusty gates and invited themselves right on in.

If you doubt their power, consider this: Zakaria holds degrees from Yale and Harvard, while his anonymous unmaskers are two lowly bloggers toiling away in digital obscurity and armed only with mouse and monitor.

It is right and good to applaud the inclusionary spirit of the New Media Landscape. A wider swathe of the public has been invited into the public conversation, and how can that be a bad thing? It’s a fool’s errand to try and construct a persuasive argument in favor of isolationism, no matter the brand. It was a lame argument when considering the future of a partitioned Germany and it’s a lame argument when considering the future of an increasingly fragmented journalism environment.

Trouble is, as we navigate the transition, both media practitioners and media consumers alike find themselves in a bit of an ethical netherworld. The vacuum seal has been breached. And drifting out on the currents of all that old, stale air are a retinue of once-cherished notions about how journalism ought to be done, and by whom, and by which criteria it ought to ultimately be judged. Which of the old ways should we try to save, and which shall we relegate to the wind?

If the Zakaria kerfuffle is any indication, the reflexive relaxation of rules in this new, inclusive environment don’t just apply to the untrained. Softer standards are also being applied to the actions of those who certainly ought to know better.

The sad truth is, most plagiarism is unintentional. In this New Media Landscape, are we really ready to agree to judge the seriousness of a plagiaristic snafu by what somebody meant?

Isn’t intention a rather slippery egg to grasp, whether you’re dealing with the attributive failings of a citizen blogger or those of a Harvard PhD?

Walls crumble. Ideas change. Countries and institutions redraw boundaries in an attempt to stay relevant and useful, just as they must. But when the old walls fall, whether metaphorically or literally, a semantic space also opens up for the abuse of these newfound freedoms. Journalism must not underestimate the material threat of an Ascendant Accidentalism, under whose banner breaches of the public trust are compulsively apologized and rationalized away.

We didn’t ask for a media war. We got one anyway. And we must commit to meting out harsher punishments to the Foot Soldiers of shoddy, lazy, half-cocked reporting, beginning right at the top.

Beginning with Fareed Zakaria.

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2 thoughts on “Journalism’s Ugly Little Plagiarism Problem: What we talk about when we talk about Fareed Zakaria

  1. Nan Collie says:

    Wow Er, what a thought provoking piece. Loved how you tied the Berlin wall with it all. And interesting to read your perspective after doing the newspaper business for awhile. I vote for integrity as well. (-:

    Your not so secret admirer, Nan

    • erinjbernard says:

      Thanks, Nan!! Yes, and I think the best way to promote integrity is to put our money where our mouths are and call people out for their slip-ups. Even when it’s hard. It’s how we get better.

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