Tag Archives: plagiarism

Repeat After Me: Zakaria, Plagiarism and Magnanimity

Fareed Zakaria, the host of the CNN news show GPS and a Washington Post columnist, is on the hot seat for the second time in two years for allegations that he plagiarized material for use in his written work. Some of you will recall that in August 2010 Zakaria was briefly suspended for posting a passage in his Time magazine column that bore a close resemblance to a passage written by Jill LePore in her New Yorker article on the same topic. Zakaria admitted that the event was a “terrible mistake” and was briefly suspended, but was reinstated after his editors deemed it a one-time event.  At the time the original accusation occurred, I posted this response that, while not necessarily defending Zakaria, certainly expressed some empathy for how that mistake could occur, since I had nearly made a similar mistake myself.

Now, however, two anonymous bloggers at the Our Bad Media website are claiming that Zakaria “has a history of lifting material in his work across several major publications – despite public assurances from his employers that a previous plagiarism scandal was only an isolated incident.” This is the same duo who accused Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson of multiple instances of copying material verbatim from various online sources.  Johnson was subsequently fired.

It is not clear that Zakaria is even guilty of the charges, never mind that he might suffer Johnson’s fate. In a communication sent to Politico he vigorously denied the accusations, arguing that he did in fact cite sources and otherwise drew on material that was clearly part of the public record. Here is part of his defense: “My usual procedure with a piece of data that I encounter is to check it out, going as close to the original source as is possible. If the data is government generated (GDP, spending on pensions, tax rates, defense spending, etc.) then I often don’t cite a source since it is in the public domain. If it is a study or survey produced by a think tank, then I usually cite the institution that conducted the survey. In many of these cases, there was a link in my column to the source. This was not always possible, however, because Time magazine, for example, did not always allow for links. My columns are often data-heavy, so I try to use common sense, putting a source into the text when it was necessary. In many of the columns cited by the bloggers, I found the data they refer to in a primary source not the secondary one that they highlight.” Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s boss at the Washington Post has already dismissed the one case cited by the bloggers that involved a Zakaria column for that paper.  As I noted in my earlier post on this topic, I’m not completely objective here, but I find some of the latest claims against Zakaria to stretch the meaning of the term plagiarism as I understand it. However, I’ll let you be the judge.

So why take up this topic in a blog devoted to analyzing the presidency and American politics, if not to debate Zakaria’s guilt or innocence?  One reason is that this topic is increasingly relevant to those of us who blog – and to those who read our blogs. The charges against Zakaria are likely to resurrect an earlier debate triggered by the Johnson case regarding what constitutes plagiarism in the digital age. While some participants dismissed Johnson’s actions as a trivial copying of fluffy material, the New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan did not: “It’s pretty simple, at BuzzFeed or at The New York Times: Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link. Use multiple sources; compare, contrast, verify.” She went on to point out that with the availability of online search programs, it is becoming increasingly easy to catch cases of plagiarism.

The flip side of that, however, is that in the digital age, the temptation to cut and paste, or more typically to closely paraphrase on-line sources, is all the greater. Anyone who blogs frequently, as I do, is aware of this. As I noted in my earlier post on Zakaria’s initial plagiarism charge, “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.”

Those fears have, if anything, become slightly more magnified now that I’m posting almost daily at the Christian Science Monitor and weekly at U.S. News. I appreciate the broader audience, and I would not be able to produce material on an almost daily basis for their consumption were it not for the fact we live in the digital age, where a world of information is available at a keystroke – even here, in God’s Green Hills, where woodchucks outnumber people. But it’s not just bloggers who have to remain vigilant against falling into sloppy attribution practices.  My students are returning to campus, and if the past is any guide, more than one of them is going to wrestle this year with the issues that have gotten Zakaria in hot water.  So that I might prevent a trip before the judicial board (never mind Our Bad Media!), let me reiterate some simple but important guidelines that students might find helpful as they navigate through the Brave New Digital world.

1. When I directly quote anything, I put it in quotations marks and cite the source. Even if I paraphrase, my general rule is to err on the side of caution and cite the source if this can be even remotely construed as someone else’s material.  You are never going to get in trouble by crediting someone else for inspiring what you wrote, no matter how trivial the material.

2. When I come up with a wonderful idea (say, the special theory of relativity) but am vaguely aware that someone else might have discussed this too (that Al guy?), my default option is to be generous and cite the previous work. I’m cognizant that my “original” idea might in fact owe something to someone else’s research. Moreover, citing related work helps situate my argument in the broader literature, and gives reader a way to assess the intellectual background associated with the particular topic.

I’m acutely aware that the pressure to publish regularly, and to drive audiences to one’s site can tempt one to take shortcuts when it comes to citing sources for ideas and information. “I was first!” is an emotion that dates back to kindergarten, if not earlier. I suspect those pressures are magnified as one moves up the media food chain. However, I know from experience that my students feel similar pressure when they realize that the 5-page paper analyzing Obama’s sources of power is due the next morning. My advice under those circumstances is to be magnanimous – cite your sources, no matter how tangential to your argument. You’ll be glad you did. And it just might keep you from becoming the inspiration for the new website Our Bad Student.

Fareed Zakaria: You Didn’t Write This

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.