“Workaday Journalist” Goes McCarthy on Fareed Zakaria

If you don’t want to be likened to this illustrious senator, don’t call out famous journalists’ mistakes.

What with America’s usual crop of shootings and political pronouncements on the uterus, I felt like the discovery of plagiarism in the work of a major US journalist was hardly a blip on the screen.

But I quaked inside when I saw that NewsBusters.org had caught writer Fareed Zakaria transplanting a passage, nearly word-for-word, from a Jill Lepore piece in the New Yorker into his own piece for Time magazine.

As an aspiring writer, I had admired Zakaria since before I was really old enough to understand his prolific articles. I watched him go from an omnipresent newsmagazine byline to bestselling author, TV pundit and host. It seems like there’s no topic, especially when it comes to deeply complicated foreign policy issues, which he can’t knowledgeably and credibly tackle.

I first saw Zakaria’s name in the Newsweek magazines of my youth. According to his bio, the India native is a Harvard Ph.D. and spent a decade handling Newsweek’s international editions before becoming Time magazine’s Editor at Large in 2010. He’s also a Washington Post columnist and is host of CNN’s international affairs program, Fareed Zakaria GPS. He tops all kinds of lists of America’s powerful and intelligent, writes bestselling non-fiction books, and is a sought-after speaker.

New York Magazine helped to lay out the charges first noticed by Newsbusters.org, whose mission is “exposing and combating liberal media bias.” (Since it was an article on gun control, they must have been paying close attention.) You can look at the passages in question here.

Zakaria owned up quickly – I think.

“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 22nd 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.”

I was shocked.

He was briefly suspended by Time and CNN, then reinstated. Why hound a man out of a stellar career for one little mistake?

That’s what Newsweek’s Tunku Varadarajan writes in an essay cleverly titled “Schadenfareed.”

It’s a play on the word schadenfreude, a German gem that means taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune (hey, I’m not going to pretend that I was born knowing what that word meant).

Varadarajan is a former editor of the Wall Street Journal and the current editor of Newsweek International. He writes the “World on a Page” feature in Newsweek which rounds up offbeat international doings in a pithy, entertaining way. So in my humble estimation, he’s well-qualified to comment on tiffs in the media.

I’m assuming that Varadarajan is acquainted with Zakaria, given their common experience at Newsweek and their work on foreign affairs, but he doesn’t mention a personal acquaintance in his essay defending Zakaria.

Despite being only a pipsqueak local journalist, with only 29 years to my name and no serious mane of gray hair, I didn’t like the piece.

Varadarajan criticizes Zakaria’s media colleagues, saying they “slobber[ed] and snarl[ed] for his blood” over a “trivial” act of plagiarism that shouldn’t have merited such “cyclonic castigation.” He calls the employers who immediately, albeit temporarily, suspended him “spineless,” and laments that now Zakaria will never be chosen for that national-security post Obama was eying him for.

He calls the angry uproar “a hideous manifestation of envy – Fareed envy.” Journalism, like academia, is a small, competitive world: “Media reporters who hounded Zakaria occupy the lowest rung and exult at the prospect of pulling people down,” Varadarajan says.

In defense of the embattled writer, Varadarajan lauds the scope of Zakaria’s “insanely successful” career: his widespread columns, famous cover stories, bestselling books “that presidents clutch as they clamber aboard planes,” and $75,000 speaking fees, not to mention his TV stardom.

Varadarajan aptly explains that as traditional media outlets fight extinction in the digital age, “celebrity public intellectuals,” all with their own nationally-known brand, are the only viable resource.  “Recognizable across all the mediums, the branded few [like Zakaria] become mini-industries unto themselves.”

So have some pity when they screw up, Varadarajan seems to say: it takes a hell of a lot of energy to maintain the kind of output that keeps you at the top of the world’s media circus. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop “a huge cloud of excluded people, regular civilians and workaday journalists alike” from venting their feelings on the internet. We’re “resentful” that journalists like Zakaria soak up all the airtime and we look obsessively to discredit them.

Varadarajan calls us the “plagiarism McCarthyites.”  He says that with such demands for quality pieces on so many topics, it’s no wonder Zakaria cheated just a smidge.

“So he cribbed a little: he read a lot; took notes; things got jumbled. Is that worth a man’s career? I think not, and to his credit he thought not too.”

I’m not convinced. I like what Huffpost pointed out, in response to people who declared that Zakaria must not write all that stuff himself anyway – doesn’t he have some interns? They must have made the mistake, not him. As Huffpost reports, Zakaria denies that anyone other than himself writes the pieces under his name, and says “his mistake came from mixing up different notes from different sources.”

“That account does not quite explain how the plagiarized paragraph was so closely aligned with its original source, nor how it was unattributed to the writer, Jill Lepore,” Huffpost concludes.

As someone who tends to get pretty livid over plagiarism, whether it’s the widespread cheating in schools and universities full of kids who don’t scruple to purchase papers or simply copy them off the internet, or professional writers who can’t be bothered to turn out consistently original content, I’m disappointed in Varadarajan’s defense.

I, too, am learning that success – or maybe I should say making a living – in the journalism world demands an almost super-human versatility. When people ask me how the heck one pays the bills by writing, one answer is that you have to be willing to write about pretty much anything. And that means learning about pretty much everything, from aquaponics to Stanislavsky to jet engines.

I am not saying that I am a journalist on par with Zakaria, in terms of my intellect or my experience. No way. But I don’t buy that he should get off the hook for lifting someone else’s work because the guy just takes so many notes. I’m buried in notebooks and piles of paper, and that’s not even counting my computer files. But you won’t catch me lifting what someone else wrote, tweaking a few words, and passing it off as my own idea.

Some of the ensuing coverage of Zakaria’s trouble points out that the plagiarism was not so much a lapse in his ethics as the natural outcome of having too many responsibilities. Publius Forum and The New York Times both report that the episode has taught Zakaria he needs to lighten his professional load, so he doesn’t get so stressed he mixes up his notes. Or something like that.

I suppose that’s valid. But I’d like to hear a little more focus on admitting that what he did was wrong, rather than indirectly excusing it by saying it was the outcome of an over-scheduled mind.

After all, it’s a perfect excuse for frazzled college kids everywhere.

I am not among the journalists baying for Zakaria’s blood. I don’t think the episode should sink his career. Rather, it can be a valuable chance for all journalists to remember their responsibilities.

But here’s what your piece says to me, Tunku Varadarajan, should I ever get famous and then decide that quietly nabbing somebody else’s passage would be easier than writing my own.

I should ignore the people who would call me out, because they’re just jealous of my success. I should get allowances for that sort of thing once I get to the top of the pile. It’s petty, cruel and McCarthy-ish for anyone to expect my stuff to be 100% original. Maintaining a mega-brand is more important than dealing honestly with my mistakes.

And all those excuses sound almost as bad as plagiarism itself.

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2 Comments

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  1. You nailed it. There is no rationalizing plagiarism, period. More so with a whole paragraph, like he did. It is difficult enough for writers these days attempting to protect their work against the boom and bane that is the Internet. In one sense, it widely disperses our work, in another, make our sweat equity too easy to copy and use without attributation. I accept his apology and his taking responsibility for his actions. I don’t accept the efforts by others to excuse his behavior.

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