Fareed Zakaria: Cutting corners in journalism is unacceptable
Every aspiring journalist has to learn how to piggy-back. That is, anyone who wants to make a living from journalism – and the constant content production it requires – will find it tough to be first 24/7. Some do have the knack. But for the rest of us, typing an idea into Google and finding it written already three or four times over is a regular ego-scraper.
It’s also the right time to hitch up trousers and piggy-back: to use whatever is out there already to boost your own work without overbalancing into plagiary. In this, the best writers are perhaps less like school-children than ball-room dancers, moving elegantly from source to source but keeping all eyes on the swing of their own hips.
This month, an example of how not to do it emerged from an unlikely source. Fareed Zakaria, the respected columnist for Time magazine and CNN host, was revealed to have copied directly from a New Yorker article for one of his own pieces on gun-control.
The duplicated passage was short enough, but in the pernickety manner tiny punctuation changes had been made, plagiarists worldwide might have recognised a trick. In my view, two things saved Zakaria. First, a quick mea culpa. Second, brand value: firing their man on ethical grounds would mean the loss of both a brilliant voice and a profitable asset for Time and CNN. It may even be that Zakaria’s stats jump after the scandal.
In the end, a short period in the sin-bin was deemed sufficient by both CNN and Time, who conducted a thorough review of Zakaria’s work before announcing he would be back in business soon. The message was clear. Move along, folks, nothing to see.
But there are some of us who can’t help rubbernecking. Much as Zakaria is a fine writer and by all accounts an extraordinarily diligent man, he made a quite grievous mistake. Yes, he did not lift much. But he did lift; and the excuse he walked out, that somehow the longhand notes he made from the original New Yorker article were mixed up with those of his own, is, as the Atlantic has shown, popular with those caught plagiarising. So before we do move on and start watching and reading Zakaria once more, consider what plagiarism, even in small doses, means.
It means that a journalist is either too hungry for acclaim to acknowledge someone got there first, too in thrall to the fattening of their output to maintain integrity, or too damn arrogant to think they could ever be caught.
David Carr, the star of Page One: Inside the New York Times, had some typically straight-backed and persuasive things to say on the subject. There are, he points, out, other instances of cutting corners around in the media at the moment – what might even be called a trend. A staff-writer for the New Yorker and general whiz kid Jonah Lehrer invented quotes from Bob Dylan to furnish his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Niall Ferguson – who seems to be on a quest to discredit himself – can be added to the list, after misleading readers in a column for Newsweek.
And almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands of words published yesterday, there were more examples.
So when a big name like Zakaria is exposed, we should not brush it under the carpet. Journalism is at heart a game of trust. And the best way for Zakaria to regain our trust is not in sheepish excuses, but in talking about his failure and what drove him to it. His next column will be published on 7 September in Time. Here’s hoping it is not a typically dashing piece on foreign policy – but an analysis of pressures far closer to home.Tagged in: Fareed Zakaria, gun-control, journalism, new yorker, plagiarism, time
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