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Zakaria, Lehrer and journalism’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

Posted by Mark Leccese  August 20, 2012 11:55 AM

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Twenty-seven percent of Americans, according to a December 2011 Gallup poll, rate the honesty and ethical standards of journalists as “low or very low.” Real estate agents and bankers (bankers?) get about the same rating.

After this past week, I’m thinking of joining that 27 percent.

Nah, I take that back. Most — I said most — reporters and editors and commentators I read and watch and know personally have high standards for honesty and ethics. Go on and shake your head, but I’ve spent my entire adult life in journalism and I’m raising my right hand to God and telling you it's true.

Still, you know what they say about bad apples, and what a triumphant week it was for bad apples. If the Gallup people called last week as asked me how I rate the honesty and ethical standards of Time and Wired magazine and CNN, I’d say, “You got any choices lower than ‘very low’?”

After serving just a week of his highly publicized one-month suspension, the plagiarist Fareed Zakaria was reinstated by Time and by CNN. Meanwhile the managing editor of Wired wanted to make clear that contributor Jonah Lehrer — who made stuff up and presented it as fact — hasn’t been grabbed by the shirt collar and tossed out of Wired’s pages for good. Wired’s editors are thinking it over. As if there’s anything to think about.

Zakaria first. Here is the crucial sentence in Time's statement about Zakaria:

We have completed a thorough review of each of Fareed Zakaria’s columns for Time, and we are entirely satisfied that the language in question in his recent column was an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized.

And the key sentence from CNN’s statement:

We found nothing that merited continuing the suspension.

Tim Graham of the website Newsbusters first identified Zakaria’s plagiarism, and Alexander Abad-Santos of The Atlantic Wire wrote the best summary. To understand Zakaria’s plagiarism, we need to look at the relevant paragraphs in the source from which he plagiarized, a Jill Lepore article in The New Yorker, and the column he passed off as his work. The first samples are from Newbusters and the second from The Atlantic Wire. (See how easy that is, Dr. Zakaria?)

Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, 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, 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.”

Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, April 23:

Furthermore, Jackson said, the language of the amendment makes clear that the right “is not one which may be utilized for private purposes but only one which exists where the arms are borne in the militia or some other military organization provided for by law and intended for the protection of the state.” The Court agreed, unanimously.

Fareed Zakaria, Time, August 20:

Robert H. Jackson, said the Second Amendment grants people a right that “is not one which may be utilized for private purposes but only one which exists where the arms are borne in the militia or some other military organization provided for by law and intended for the protection of the state.” The court agreed unanimously.

The Time magazine statement called Zakaria’s plagiarism an “unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized.”

It is good that he apologized, and it may indeed be an isolated incident, but his plagiarism cannot possibly be unintentional. How, Time, is stealing unintentional? Plagiarism is intentional by definition.

CNN’s statement found nothing in Zakaria’s work “that merited continuing the suspension.” Outright, obvious plagiarism committed by one of your stars does not merit even a suspension? I can describe that only as a “low or very low” ethical standards.

I can think of only one reason why Time would consider plagiarism “unintentional” and CNN would find nothing in plagiarism that merits a suspension (or firing): Zakaria did not write the article; it was written by an assistant. As I said in a blog post about Zakaria last week, that makes no difference. Zakaria put his name on it and presented it to the public as his work. He’s guilty.

On to Jonah Lehrer, who got caught making stuff up — specifically, quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Michael C. Moynihan, a writer at the online magazine Tablet and something of an amateur Dylan expert, couldn’t find those particular Dylan quotes anywhere, so he got in touch with Lehrer. Moynihan explains what happened next:

Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”

Lehrer resigned (a step ahead of a pink slip, I assume) from his new job writing for The New Yorker. Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of Imagine, took the extraordinary step of pulling the book from bookstore shelves and ebook sites and even offered a refund to anyone who had bought the book.

A rumor popped up on the net — no, wait, it wasn’t rumor, it was a statement made by a spokesman for Wired to Buzzfeed that Lehrer “was and remains on a features contract. We chose to maintain our contract.”

The resulting media-insider brouhaha led Jacob Young, Wired’s managing editor, to issue this statement:

We want to ensure that there is no confusion regarding reports today about writer Jonah Lehrer and Wired. Jonah has not been “hired” by Wired; he’s been a contributing editor at the magazine and the website for years. When allegations surfaced about his work elsewhere, we immediately began a thorough review of his feature stories and columns in the magazine. So far we have found nothing unusual. Jonah also wrote tens of thousands of words for Wired.com, and the process of vetting that work continues. He has no current assignments. After gathering the facts — from our inquiry and elsewhere — we’ll make a decision about whether Jonah’s byline will appear again at Wired.

The implication in Young’s statement is that Wired is not going to fire a fabricator unless it can prove he made stuff up he submitted to Wired. If he made stuff up and published it somewhere else, it’s somebody else’s problem — he can still write for Wired.

Defending the indefensible matters. In an age when, as Scott Gant wrote, We’re All Journalists Now, nothing is more important to a journalist than reputation. Reputation is what separates the serious journalists from the bloggers and tweeters and everyone else with a keyboard and access to the net.

Nothing is more important to journalism, as a profession and as a part of society, than reputation. Zakaria and Lehrer seemed to believe reputation can be faked rather than earned. They thought, as do all miscreants, they wouldn’t get caught.

Because they are so prominent, they did damage not just to their reputations but to the reputation of journalism in the United States.

Time, CNN, and Wired are institutionalizing the damage. What a week.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com 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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