Dirtiest word in journalism: Plagiarist
Plagiarism. You learned what it is in high school, and you learned it was forbidden. Or at least, you learned you weren’t to get caught plagiarizing. It was a bigger temptation when I was in school because you could dig up obscure references at the library and the odds were pretty good that no one would ever match your writing to the original.
Things are different today. A few keystrokes on your keyboard brings you more source material than you can possibly deal with. And just as easily, someone else’s keystrokes can compare your writing to everything that’s ever been written. You’d be a fool to think you could get away with plagiarizing.
Why, then, would Fareed Zakaria, one of America’s most well-known journalists, indulge in such a thing?
When confronted Friday with the similarities between his gun control articles for Time and CNN and that of Jill Lepore for The New Yorker, Zakaria issued the following statement:
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 23 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.
One could take that either as an apology and admission of guilt for deliberately plagiarizing, or as an apology for having made some sort of mistake in writing, note-taking or record-keeping that resulted in the lack of attribution. It’s frighteningly easy these days when working with electronic notes and composition to change, delete, drop, or otherwise scramble the contents of a text file. Could it be that’s what happened to Zakaria?
Time and CNN have suspended him for a month while the matter is under investigation and it’s possible — just possible — that whole thing was an accident, not an intentional violation of an ethic that we all learned in school and that journalists, in particular, are expected to observe scrupulously. No exceptions.
One of the most complete reports I’ve seen on what happened, with a comparison of Zakaria’s words and the original work, is on The Atlantic Wire. As can be seen in the comparisons, plagiarism needn’t be verbatim. It gets a bit more subjective than that, with similar text or a bit of paraphrasing being close enough to draw suspicion and condemnation. If two authors are quoting the same third person, how many different way are there to frame the quotation? Is there really anything new under the sun?
Newsbusters broke the story on Friday and the example they cited was as follows:
Jill Lepore New Yorker article, 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 article, 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.”
I’ve admired and respected Zakaria for several years and I’ve often said as much on this blog. I’ve also mourned the apparent death of the journalistic ethics I learned so many years ago. When a star like Zakaria is brought down by the same sort of careless disregard that infects so many young writers today, it hurts and disappoints in a deeply personal way.
I’d like to withhold final judgment until the investigation is complete. But barring a detailed explanation of how this was an accident, I must assume the plagiarism was deliberate. And it will forever undermine my confidence in Zakaria. To me he will be be tainted, just as Dan Rather has been in the wake of the Bush documents debacle in 2004, and Doris Kearns Goodwin after her 2002 plagiarism scandal. Perhaps I’m just too idealistic, but these people violated more than my personal trust; they violated my professional code — our professional code. I can’t forgive that.