(The views expressed are the author’s own and not those of Reuters.)
By Steven Brill
Suppose I steal my neighbor Jill’s flat-screen television and install it in my living room. Jill or one of her friends who knows about Jill’s missing television comes over to my house a few days later, notices the television and asks, “Hey, isn’t that Jill’s television?”
I immediately confess. ”Yes, it is,“ I say. I‘m really sorry. It was a mistake.”
Jill or any interested observer or even the police might ask, “What do you mean by ‘mistake’? Did you mistakenly break into her house and mistakenly haul her huge flat-screen into your living room and set it up on the wall?”
Well, so far, most of the press seems content to let a colleague - Fareed Zakaria, who writes for Time and the Washington Post and has a Sunday CNN talk show - get off with exactly that explanation for stealing something. In this case, the theft was plagiarism.
As has been widely reported, it was discovered the week before last that Zakaria’s essay in that week’s edition of Time and on an accompanying blog post on CNN.com about gun control had a key, fact-filled paragraph that was almost identical to a paragraph in an April issue of the New Yorker by Harvard professor Jill Lepore. Two other important paragraphs, while not nearly as word-for-word, basically track what Lepore wrote. The three paragraphs - tracing the surprisingly long history of gun control laws in America - are by far the meatiest and seemingly most original parts of Zakaria’s 11-paragraph Time column.
After media reports - which started with a blog post by Newsbusters, a conservative media watchdog organization -detailed the apparent copying of Lepore’s work, Zakaria issued the following statement on August 10:
“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.”
Following that statement, Time and CNN said they were suspending Zakaria pending their own investigations; both statements said or implied that they were seeking to find out how Zakaria’s “mistake” happened and, more important, whether any of his other work might have contained similar lapses. The Washington Post, noting that his column was “on vacation” in August, said it, too, would investigate his prior work but that his column was expected to resume in September.
Just six days later, Time and CNN announced that their investigations were over and Zakaria was being reinstated. Here’s what Time’s statement announcing that all is forgiven said:
“We have completed a thorough review of each of Fareed Zakaria’s columns for Time, and we are entirely satisfied that the language in question in his recent column was an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized. We look forward to having Fareed’s thoughtful and important voice back in the magazine with his next column in the issue that comes out on September 7.”
Time, CNN and Zakaria owe their readers and viewers a lot more than that, and the rest of the press should be embarrassed if it lets those statements end the story.
What was the “unintentional error”? Other cases of plagiarism in the digital age have been explained by a writer cutting and pasting something someone else has written into what he or she is writing and then forgetting to put it in quotes and attribute it. That excuse is dubious enough, but here - as well documented by Atlantic.com (which attributed its discovery to a reference in a National Review Online article) - Zakaria’s self-described “mistake” or “lapse” was doctored a bit with slight changes in language in the key paragraph and with more changes in the offending paragraphs that followed. These alterations strongly suggest that this was no accident, that he intentionally used Lepore’s work, and instead of attributing it thought he would cover his tracks by tinkering with some of her words.
Or at least that’s what I will think until some reporter sits down and asks Zakaria exactly those questions and gets a full and verifiable explanation of exactly what his “lapse” was - and then asks Time and CNN to explain exactly what their six-day “investigations” consisted of.
On Monday, the New York Times took what was at best a perfunctory stab at pinning Zakaria down in a story by Christine Haughney, headlined, “A Media Personality, Suffering a Blow to His Image, Ponders a Lesson.” As with prior Times coverage , Haughney dwelled on the pressure Zakaria has put himself under as he juggles two columns, a TV show, regular tweeting, writing books and doing paid speaking gigs. “Many writers now market themselves as separate brands, and their journalism works largely as a promotion for more lucrative endeavors like writing books and public speaking,” she explained. The “lesson” Zakaria says he had learned from the incident, she concluded, was: “There’s got to be some stripping down” of his frantic schedule.
However, Haughney did spend one paragraph getting Zakaria to describe what his “mistake” was in plagiarizing Lepore:
“The mistake, he said, occurred when he confused the notes he had taken about Ms. Lepore’s article - he said he often writes his research in longhand - with notes taken from ‘Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,’ by Adam Winkler (W.W. Norton, 2011), a copy of which was on his desk at his CNN office.”
That explanation raises more questions than it answers, none of which are covered in Haughney’s article, and which other reporters should pursue.
Zakaria’s chief offense was in using as his own Lepore’s description and analysis of what the Winkler book says. Even if the book was “on his desk,” did he read it? Does he actually have any notes from his having read the book? Or did he confuse what the source of his notes was because he misremembered reading the book? And how could the notes from Lepore’s New Yorker piece have been mistaken for notes taken from the Winkler book, if the notes refer to the book just the way Lepore does? Why would he think notes taken from a book would describe the book and its author?
Did the Times reporter ask to see those notes, not just to understand what happened but also to verify that they exist? Did the Times reporter ask to interview Zakaria’s editor or anyone else on the Time or CNN staffs? Did the reporter ask to interview the Time and CNN “investigators”? Someone should.
These may seem like tough questions, but imagine the mainstream press’s tough questions if a politician tried this kind of simple, trust-me explanation. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine critics of the mainstream media charging that the “lesson” Zakaria says he learned is not too far afield from Newt Gingrich’s explanation, mocked appropriately by the press, that he cheated on his wife because of all the pressures he was under trying to do good for his country.
Zakaria also told the Times that he had reluctantly hired a research assistant to help him handle the workload, but that the assistant did not draft his articles. If his more complete explanation turns out to be that he is taking the bullet for a research assistant, readers at CNN.com and Time deserve to know that, too, and deserve to know what he’s doing to cut down on his workload so that he can be fully responsible for the work that bears his name. And reporters deserve to know the name of the research assistant, not to embarrass him or her but so that they can interview him or her to verify the story.
However, if it turns out that this was more than a paper mix-up or a researcher’s rookie mistake, and that the pressures of all those paying gigs actually made Zakaria steal Lepore’s work - something for which he could have been thrown out of the two universities (Harvard and Yale) that adorn his resume - CNN and Time should explain why he’s being forgiven and what he’s doing to cut down on his workload and multiple payrolls. More than that, reporters should press CNN and Time on why even one commission of what, along with fabrication, is journalism’s most basic breach of trust gets a pass. Would I be able to explain to the police that my flat-screen might be stolen, but I swear everything else in my house was bought honestly?
The same Times story that initially referred to his busy schedule, noted that Zakaria had been criticized for giving basically the same paid graduation speech at two commencements this spring. I‘m not sure how bad an offense that is, but it does raise another question: Where, other than at universities, has he been such a busy paid speaker? Has he been paid to speak to groups -- such as those representing major industries or international constituencies (a group that seeks enhanced free-trade agreements, for example) -- that have special interests related to issues he reports about or whose leaders have been covered in his writings or on his TV show?
A column by David Carr in the Times, also on Monday, compared Zakaria’s transgression to those of Jonah Lehrer, who was found to have plagiarized his own work by recycling it in the New Yorker, among other places, and also to have fabricated quotes in his best-selling book, Imagine. Declaring Lehrer to be the far worse actor - which based on all the available evidence is clearly true - Carr wrote this about Zakaria: “He apologized, was suspended, and Time and CNN investigated whether there was a deeper problem and decided there was not. He was reinstated on Thursday. End of story.”
Steven Brill is the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America's Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.