Fareed Zakaria: You Didn’t Write This

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As often happens with these cases, the initial plagiarism charge against Fareed Zakaria has prompted renewed scrutiny of his other work.  The latest charge – one that Zakaria is vigorously defending himself against – is that he used a quote without attribution in his 2008 best-selling book The Post-American World that actually came from an interview conducted by Clyde Prestowitz for his 2006 book Three Billion New Capitalists.  Meanwhile, the Washington Post announced on Monday that it will not run Zakaria’s columns this month.  Presumably the paper is reviewing Zakaria’s previous columns for other instances of plagiarism.  Five days ago, of course,  Time Magazine suspended Zakaria for a month after he admitted plagiarizing passages  from a Jill Lepore article on gun control that she wrote for the New Yorker magazine. Shortly after Time’s action, CNN – for which Zakaria hosts the cable news show Fareed Zakaria GPS Global Public Square – also suspended him indefinitely.   Zakaria issued a public apology for his actions regarding Lepore’s New Yorker article, saying: “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.”

However, Zakaria is defending himself against the latest charge that he lifted a quote from someone’s else’s interview and used it in his own book:  “As I write explicitly [in the book], this is not an academic work where everything has to be acknowledged and footnoted.”   He points out that because of the sheer number of such quotes, including citations for each one would “interrupt the flow for the reader.”

Predictably, Zakaria’s critics have used the plagiarism charge as an opportunity to go after previous instances of sloppy reporting and other journalistic missteps that fall short of plagiarism, including the unpardonable sin of giving the same commencement address at different schools. But the criticism doesn’t stop there; others view this incident as a prime opportunity to renew their criticism of his policy positions.

Look, I have no idea how Lepore’s passages ended up in Zakaria’s column, although I can think of more than one innocuous reason to explain it.  And I’ll leave it to others to debate the appropriate punishment for Zakaria’s sins, real and imagined.  But I confess that I feel a certain amount of empathy for him.  (Full disclosure:  Zakaria’s and my career paths overlapped at Harvard; I was transitioning from doctoral student to junior faculty there while he was finishing his Ph.D. But I never had him in a class and I do not know him well.)  That empathy is based on more than “old school ties”, however.  Instead, it comes from understanding how easy it is, when writing a daily blog based in part on information available on the internet for anyone to use at the touch of a keyboard, to find oneself in Zakaria’s predicament.  Indeed, the proliferation of news aggregators has made it easier to justify using other writers’ material without attribution.

I am not immune to this temptation.  Almost every day I post an 800-1,500 word comment that more often than not is based in part on someone else’s research and/or insights.  I work  without  an editor, and although I am careful to follow journalistic norms by citing other’s work (thanks to my year as a cub reporter for a daily paper, I have some journalistic training), I live in constant fear that I will have forgotten a link, or dropped a reference such as “As so-and-so said” in my blog post.  And once I hit the send button, it’s very hard to make corrections.   Fortunately, my posts don’t get nearly the same level of scrutiny as Zakaria’s.  That doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility of following standard journalistic practices, something I take very seriously.  But I would be a fool to pretend that slipups can’t happen.

Years ago, when I was set to publish my first book, I sent a draft of the manuscript to a well-known presidency scholar whose work had influenced mine to a considerable degree.   In short order he sent back an email that said (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), “Ahem, I don’t quite know how to say this but…” and here he pulled up a sentence from the beginning of one of my chapters, followed by a page number from one of his books.  When I followed his cue, I was shocked to find that my opening sentence was exactly the same as one from his book.  I had repeated it without using either quotation marks or even a citation to his work.  True, it was only one sentence, and I had cited his research in dozens of other places in my manuscript, but I was still mortified by my inexplicable error.  All I could think was that I had transcribed a passage from my notecard to the text improperly.  (To my students – yes, we used to do research using notecards.)  Needless to say, when the book was published, the sentence was in quotes and properly cited.  To this day I am grateful that I decided to send him the draft manuscript, and that he caught the error and notified me before the book went to press.

My point is this: I’m not trying to excuse Zakaria’s actions, nor condemn them.  But I’m in no rush to judge the man based on this one incident.

 

4 Responses to Fareed Zakaria: You Didn’t Write This

  1. Alex Garlick says:

    I think your defense of Zakaria is sound. There also seems to be a high degree of schadenfreude in journalistic ranks when a high-profile writer like Zakaria or Jonah Lehrer is in one of these situations that serves as a multiplier effect.

  2. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Alex,

    I’m not sure I’m defending him so much as empathizing with his situation. I really have no basis for doing more than that. I agree with you: the higher up the person in the media food chain, the farther people would like to see them fall.

  3. Ed Shanbacker says:

    When I shared the Zakaria story with a recent Princeton grad who had been suspended for a year for allegedly cheating… his reaction was that “adults” seem to get away with such behavior with a slap on the wrist, while he as a student came close to receiving the “nuclear” option by a one-year suspension. In those colleges and universities with an honor code (I am having a senior moment and can’t remember the situation at Middlebury)…expulsion could have been the consequence for doing what earned Dr. Zakaria mostly a one-month vacation… I guess it’s the Doris Kearns Goodwin effect. (and yes, he did give the graduation address at Harvard this past May- ooops- their bad) IMHO.

  4. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Ed,

    You raise a good point. Like Princeton, Middlebury does have a stringent honor code, and I’ve had a couple of students suspended for an academic year for violating it by plagiarizing someone else’s work. But in those cases there was no doubt the student was guilty. I’m not trying to absolve Zakaria, but I don’t think I fully understand enough about the circumstances of his case to render a judgment. But it may be that, as you implicitly suggest, I’m being too lenient toward him.

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