LONDON -- I’ve always thought that Fareed Zakaria was a bit too slick.
It’s not that I don’t like him. I share the pundit’s broadly liberal internationalist view towards world affairs. And unlike many wonks (the big exception here being the University of Chicago’s Austan Goolsbee), Zakaria’s actually got a sense of humor, which is always a plus.
But there was always something a bit too cute by half about this good-looking, well-spoken darling of the Center-Left with his million dollar smile.
So it didn’t come as a huge surprise when I learned that Zakaria had become embroiled in a plagiarism scandal that has – temporarily, at least – cost him two of his plum platforms: Time and CNN. On Friday, both news outlets suspended Zakaria while they investigated charges that he had lifted passages from an article by New Yorker writer Jill Lepore on gun control. He has since apologized to Lepore and taken full responsibility for the incident, which he described as a “serious lapse.”
To be fair, I’ve looked at the two passages -- which you can see laid out side by each, here – and on journalistic grounds, I don’t think this is such a huge deal. As my colleague Melinda Henneberger pointed out, what he’s really guilty of is re-writing a paragraph summarizing a book about gun control. When you compare that to, say, the Jonah Lehrer affair at the New Yorker - Lehrer was fired after admitting that he fabricated entire quotes for an article – Zakaria’s deeds don’t seem hugely horrible.
Should Zakaria have credited Lepore and/or chosen a better way of paraphrasing her? Of course he should have. He also should have done so when he nicked a few passages from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg a few years back. (I’ll give this to Zakaria, at least he knows enough to steal from smart people.)
But in the 24/7 news environment in which we live and operate as journalists – in which getting the scoop and getting the clicks is the name of the game – I think Zakaria can be forgiven for cutting a few corners. (I similarly don’t hold it against him that he apparently gave the same commencement speech twice within 11 days. That’s just efficient.)
No, I find him culpable because Zakaria comes from the world of academia. Before setting off into the dizzying heights of punditry, he picked up a Ph.D. in political science from none other than Harvard University (where, coincidentally, Lepore teaches history.)
Plagiarism may not be a major moral failing, as literary scholar and some time New York Times op-ed contributor Stanley Fish points out. But in the university setting in which Zakaria was trained and credentialed, it’s pretty much one of the worst crimes you can commit.
I know of what I speak. Like Zakaria, I, too, am a card-carrying political scientist. Once – back when I was teaching at the University of Chicago – I came across a student’s paper which I was quite sure had been plagiarized. The first tip-off was the language itself – the student in question was not a native English speaker. And when I consulted with two economist colleagues of mine, who took a closer look at the empirical work, we discovered that the entire thing had been lifted from somewhere else.
We brought the student into our offices and within five minutes of grilling him about his research methodology, he confessed to everything. In tears, he admitted that his wife was pregnant and so – inches away from graduating and getting a good job – he decided to take the easy route and turn in someone else’s work to complete his dissertation.
I felt genuinely sorry for the guy. I really did. My colleagues and I were all assistant professors and close enough to our own dissertations to know just how stressful writing a thesis can be. But we also felt that this young man had known full well what he was doing when he cheated and the risks he was taking. And so we denied him his degree. Because if we’d let him coast, we were basically saying that it’s OK to steal other people’s ideas and get away with it. And it isn’t.
I’m not sure if Zakaria’s “lapse” means that he ought to be disbarred from the journalistic profession, or whatever it is we do to those who break our ethical codes in the media.
But there’s no question that Zakaria knew exactly what he was doing. And why it was wrong.