Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for August 12th, 2012

Writer Fareed Zakaria Suspended from Time and CNN for Plagiarism

with 3 comments

On August 10, 2012 — two days ago, to be exact — Fareed Zakaria, a writer for Time magazine and a host at CNN, was suspended for plagiarism.  Something like this happens only rarely to top-level, nationally-known pundits, which is why I wanted to see what the fallout would be before I wrote about it.

Here’s what happened.  Zakaria wrote a column on gun control for Time that used a number of passages from a similar article by Jill Lepore that appeared in the April edition of the New Yorker.  Here’s a copy of what Lepore wrote back then:

“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.’”

Now, see Zakaria’s version of the same thing from his recent column in Time magazine:

“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.’”

As you see, there’s little difference. 

What’s worse, there’s no excuse for this — none whatsoever — because Zakaria did have other options than to simply lift a passage from Lepore’s piece without proper attribution.

The first and easiest thing Zakaria could’ve done is this — give Lepore her due.  Say, “Recently, in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore wrote an excellent article on gun control.  As I cannot improve upon her words, here’s what she said back in April:” and go on from there.

But Zakaria had a second option available as well if Time wouldn’t go for that.   He could have either used a different source, or if he really liked Adam Winkler’s book, he could’ve interviewed Winkler directly, thus getting different words but getting at the same thing.  This would not have been plagiarism because Winkler, as an author, is allowed to cite his own words whenever he feels like it.  And if Winkler wanted to point out that Lepore had written an article back in April that was really good, Zakaria could’ve mentioned that without using any of Lepore’s words, too.

And do you know what else shocked me?  This isn’t even the first time Zakaria has been accused of plagiarism.  Because as an article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic back in 2009 points out, Zakaria lifted some of his words, too!

So it appears that Zakaria has been lifting quotes from other people and not giving proper attribution for years.  However, this time, he lifted a whole paragraph, which is why he got caught.

So what did Zakaria do after he got caught?  He apologized, which is here:

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.

The problem with the apology is, it’s too little, too late.  Zakaria knows better than this.  Writers, reporters, journalists, and even hosts — like he has been on CNN for years — know that the only thing we have going for us, ultimately, is our bare word that we’ll tell the truth as we know it.  Any writer worth his or her salt knows that.  And we know that if we plagiarise, our credibility is completely and utterly blown.  Forever!

And as I said before, Zakaria had other options.  He did not have to do this.  He should not have done this.  And he deservedly got suspended for doing it anyway.

What’s truly sad and shocking about all of this is that Zakaria still has the potential to go back to work, when so many other writers who would never have done what Zakaria just did either aren’t working at all, or are working far below their capacities.  No other writer I know would catch a break like this, yet it appears Zakaria just might due to his celebrity status.

And that’s wrong — so wrong that I do not have the words to explain just how wrong it is.

Look.  Writers write.  But we don’t crib from other writers intentionally, then refuse to give proper attribution.  Because it’s ethically utterly wrong, and we know this, so we just don’t do it.  Which is why Zakaria should not have done this, period.

So what comes next for Fareed Zakaria?  My guess is that he’s going to have far fewer speaking engagements, he’ll be closely monitored at CNN, and if Time allows him to write any more articles, they will be extensively fact-checked so that no repeat performance is possible.

That’s better than what he deserves.  Because after doing something like this, he really should be fired, celebrity or no.  Because he’s proved he has no honor.

Written by Barb Caffrey

August 12, 2012 at 9:44 pm