The Troubling Case of Fareed Zakaria

Faree Zakaria Image
By Larry D. Moore CC-BY-SA
Late last week, two major stories relevant to this site broke. First was Google’s announcement that it was factoring in copyright notices into its results and the second was that Fareed Zakaria was being suspended by both Time magazine and CNN following admissions he had plagiarized within an article.

But while I chose to focus most of my initial energy on the Google announcement as it was more relevant to the original intent of this site, the Zakaria story has definitely captivated most of my attention personally.

Following so closely to the Jonah Lehrer scandal, Zakaria’s case is another hit for mainstream journalism and a particular hard hit for both Time and CNN, two organizations that had hitched a great deal of their reputation to Zakaria.

But what actually happened in this case and are the steps being taken against Zakaria adequate, excessive or about right? To answer these questions we have to first backtrack and understand what happened and then look at where things seem to be headed.

The Fareed Zakaria Plagiarism Case

Time LogoOn Friday of last week (August 10) Tim Graham of the site Newsbusters, a site that purports to combat “liberal media bias,” posted an article that contrasted a section of a recent column by Zakaria next to an earlier work from the New Yorker.

Specifically, the allegations were that Zakaria had plagiarized a paragraph from his August column entitled “The Case for Gun Control” from an April essay in the New Yorker by Jill Lepore entitled “Battleground America“.

The two paragraphs are as follows. First, from Zakaria’s piece:

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.

And then from Lepore’s:

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.

Once the allegations were made, the case escalated at a record pace. Within mere hours both Time and CNN suspended Zakaria over the plagiarism allegations and Zakaria himself apologized for the misdeed.

Time, where Zakaria is editor-at-large, suspended him for one month. CNN, where he was a commentator and host of “Fareed Zakaria GPS”, suspended him indefinitely pending an investigation. Both Time and CNN are owned by Time Warner. (Note: Zakaria had posted a similar column on CNN’s site that contained much of the same content.)

However, the allegation may not be all for Zakaria. Already new ones are beginning to bubble to the surface. This includes journalist Jeffrey Golberg re-raising a 2009 allegation that Zakaria failed to cite him as an interviewer in a quote, an allegation Zakaria denies was inappropriate. Allegations by freelance journalist Brian Barnes that Zakaria lifted from him nearly verbatim while on CNN. And finally, it includes an allegation by the Washington Post’s Paul Farhl that accused Zakaria of plagiarizing in his book “The Post American World”, a charge that has been debunked as citations were provided.

Still, Zakaria’s career is under a microscope like never before and it likely isn’t going to end for some time.

How Serious Is It?

Looking at just the initial allegation, what Zakaria did is something that comes up a great deal in cases of academic and research plagiarism. He’s accused of citing a primary source, but failing to cite a clearly-used secondary source. In this case, this means citing Adam Winkler’s book “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America”, but not the Lepore’s column, from which the information clearly came from.

The phrasing between the two is simply too close to be a coincidence. Even though the amount of verbatim copying is fairly minimal, several key phrases match up including “Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813”, “Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893” and using the exact same quote from that Texas governor.

These coincidences are definitely too great to ignore and the odds of them occurring naturally and without copying are slim to none. This is probably a big part of why Zakaria apologized so quickly, because the evidence he had done something wrong was so overwhelming.

But how serious are these allegations?

In academia, these allegations tend to be taken pretty seriously. Though they often happen by accident, especially among those with poor research skills, but they are sometimes done by researchers and students wanting to take shortcuts. It’s seen as an attempt to take credit from the secondary source and not disclose how the work was built.

However, with journalism it is a little bit less clear as this is a somewhat less common infraction, likely because it is rarely caught. Though many journalists are quick to slam Zakaria for his misdeeds, others, including Edward Jay Epstein of The Daily Beast, are quick to come to his defense. Others, such as Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens feel that he did make a mistake but that it was a minor one that could happen to almost any journalist.

As with Jonah Lehrer right after the allegations of self-plagiarism surfaced, the ultimate severity of this will likely be determined by what else the investigation into Zakaria’s works turns up. So far, the new allegations have either been poorly supported, insignificant or, at worst, completely debunked.

But this doesn’t mean that Zakaria is off the hook, as his employers, his political opponents and nearly everyone else with something to gain from bringing him down, is digging through his past trying to find the “other shoe” so they can drop it for him.

However, it’s that political element of the story that has me the most concerned.

The Political Element

One element of this story that has both been underreported and frustrating has been the political component to it. Zakaria is widely regarded and hailed as a liberal commentator, both in his work for Time and CNN. This part of what likely made Zakaria a target in the first place, especially considering the store broke on a site that is staunchly conservative and aims to battle what it considers liberal bias in the media.

In that regard, supporters and detractors of Zakaria have lined up largely along party lines. With the liberal The Daily Beast claiming that he didn’t plagiarize at all and the more conservative Washington Post filing the now-debunked charges against his book.

In short, how one publication or reporter feels about Zakaria, at least from what I’ve seen, seems to be dicated as much by politics as plagiarism. This gives Zakaria’s case more in common with the Obama plagiarism scandal and the McCain plagiarism scandal from four years ago than it does with Jonah Lehrer.

This, has done a great deal to hinder real conversation and investigation into this matter as, in many cases, it seems political motivations have overshadowed the actual misdeeds.

Bottom Line

What Zakaria did was both wrong and incredibly short-sighted. If he had paraphrased a little bit more thoroughly, it’s unlikely anyone would have ever noticed. If he, or any of his assistants, had coupled that with just a little bit of extra research to bring in some new material, it could have been a completely legitimate citation of the primary source.

Of course, he also could have just cited the secondary source and avoided this altogether, without much additional rewriting.

However, this type of miscitation, skipping the secondary source, is likely much more common than most realize. With proper paraphrasing, it’s virtually impossible to know if all of the information really came from a secondary source or came from the primary one. That doesn’t make it right, just as widespread misdeed doesn’t become ethical through virtue of being common, but it does make it a larger issue to be addressed.

But as for Zakaria, between the poor paraphrasing, lack of citation to a secondary source and the allegations of not attributing of an interviewer, which I find worrisome even if Zakaria doesn’t and is incredibly common at other publications, there’s clearly an issue here and the only question about how deep it runs.

If the allegations that are available are indeed all that Zakaria has done in his long career in journalism, then there isn’t much reason it should end. Though the spectre of plagiarism will follow him everywhere he goes from here on out, if these few allegations are truly everything then a suspension, retraining and whittling down his duties makes sense than termination and blackballing.

However, I’m always skeptical whenever someone admits to plagiarism but makes the claim that it was their only transgression. Like Jonah Lehrer, there’s usually other issues lying underneath, whether it’s other plagiarism allegations, fabrication or something else.

One thing is clear, Zakaria has plenty of people who want to find additional issues if they exist. If they are there other issues to be found, they most likely will be found with time. But those seeking to find those transgressions must first stop making easily-debunked allegations, otherwise, they risk doing more damage to their reputation than his.

After all, forgetting to put a footnote into a book is very bad, but saying that one isn’t there when there actually was one is at least equally as serious.