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Fareed Zakaria: Another plagiarism scandal, another wrist slap

Posted by Mark Leccese  August 13, 2012 08:20 AM

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Those of us in journalism had barely finished wincing our way through The New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer fabrication scandal — he had to resign in disgrace — when the eminent and ubiquitous Fareed Zakaria got caught plagiarizing.

There’s a difference: fabricators make stuff up (quotes, situations, people) and claim the fabrication is fact; plagiarists steal the research and writers of others and pass it off as their own. Lehrer is a fabricator. Zakaria is a plagiarist.

The right-wing website Newsbusters (“Exposing & Combatting Liberal Media Bias”) caught Zakaria, Time’s most visible columnist and CNN host, blatantly plagiarizing from an essay by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker published three months ago.

Zakaria quickly issued a public apology:

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 23rd 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.

It is a full apology — no hedging, no excuses. I find it odd that he feels it necessary to say the plagiarism is “entirely my fault” without saying it was entirely his action. Perhaps the first draft of the column was written by an assistant to Zakaria and he’s trying to protect his assistant.

No matter. The column went out under his byline — he’s the plagiarist.

Time followed Zakaria’s statement with a statement of its own:

Time accepts Fareed’s apology, but what he did violates our own standards for our columnists, which is that their work must not only be factual but original; their views must not only be their own but their words as well. As a result, we are suspending Fareed’s column for a month, pending further review.

That’s it? A month-long suspension, pending further review? (CNN also suspended Zakaria, for a unspecified length of time.) As someone who worked as a reporter and editor for 30 years, my first reaction is that he should be fired, immediately.

After a moment, once I’ve calmed down, I realize an immediate firing isn’t the right answer. Zakaria deserves the chance to explain to his employers, Time and CNN, why he plagiarized. If his employers are unsatisfied with his explanation, they should fire him. If there are some sort of mitigating circumstances (although I can’t imagine what they might be), then they should discipline him as they see fit and, if they choose, keep him on staff.

I’m guessing that is precisely what Time will do — Zakaria is the publication’s one and only star, its biggest draw.

Confirmed plagiarism is no longer a career-ender in journalism. The best example is serial fabricator and plagiarist Mike Barnicle, the long-time Boston Globe columnist fired — after far too much hemming and hawing — by the Globe in 1998. My colleague Dan Kennedy was the media reporter for the Boston Phoenix then and not only provided the best coverage of the Barnicle malfeasance but revealed one of Barnicle’s most blatant plagiarisms.

Today Barnicle is a regular on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” contributes to NPR, writes for the ESPN’s sports website Grantland, and opines on Twitter as @mikebarnicle, self-described “award-winning print and broadcast journalist and a social and political commentator.”

Plagiarists are liars just as surely as fabricators are liars. Jack Shafer, the media critic for Reuters, wrote a piece last October called “How to Think About Plagiarism,” here’s what he wrote:

A journalist who does original work essentially claims, this is true, according to me. The conscientious journalist who cites the work of others essentially makes the claim that this is true, according to somebody else. The plagiarist makes no such claims in his work. By having no sources of his own and failing to point to the source he stole from, he breaks the “chain of evidence” that allows readers to contest or verify facts. By doing so, he produces worthless copy that wastes the time of his readers. And that’s the crime.

Zakaria is a smart man — he has a PhD in political science from Harvard and is a trustee of Yale University. And Zakaria’s sin is certainly less than the multitude of sins Barnicle committed against journalism.

When Dan Kennedy wrote in the Phoenix on August 13, 1998 about Barnicle, who had been exposed as a fraud but not yet fired by the Globe, he wrote, “Barnicle is still standing. Like a goddamn monument. The only question is to what.”

Zakaria is sitting on the bench for the moment as his bosses contemplate his sins. They may decide to forgive him. That’s their business. I wouldn’t. He’s not a student — he’s a professional reporter and columnist and a scholar. He knew better.

I’d go farther than Shafer — a plagiarist not only wastes the reader’s time, a plagiarist deceives the reader. Deception is the opposite of what journalism is supposed to be.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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