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The Zakaria Plagiarism Affair: Print Media and The Case For Backlinks

Fareed Zakaria. Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0.“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 23rd 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.”

Last Friday, Fareed Zakaria issued this apology for loosely rewriting and using, without attribution, an entire paragraph of a New Yorker piece by historian Jill Lepore.

In addition to his position as editor-at-large for Time, Fareed Zakaria writes an op-ed page column for The Washington Post and covers international relations and foreign policy as the host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” Previously, he was a columnist and editor at Newsweek and managing editor of Foreign Affairs.

The media lion’s fall from grace comes on the heels of the Jonah Lehrer affair—in July, Lehrer resigned from his position as a staff writer at the New Yorker after admitting that he had fabricated quotes for a book on Bob Dylan; he was also found to be guilty of multiple instances “self-plagiarizing.”

Yes, This Was a Big Media Story.

Many pounced, weighing in with opinions that in some cases were more an opportunity to wax on about the writer’s opinion of Zakaria himself (accusations ranged from not being surprised by the lapse given Zakaria’s “subterranean conservatism and elitism” to the petty linking of Zakarias use of nearly the same speech at multiple commencement addresses this spring with a criminal mind.)

Along with reporting the apology, Fishbowl NY editor Chris O’Shea started out Friday with the snarky opinion that “Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer should form a gang.” The Atlantic Wire’s Alexander Abad-Santos called the lapse “egregious plagiarism,” going on to rank the offense: “going by The New Yorker’s Lehrer Plagiarism Scale, we’d say it ranks worse than Jonah Lehrer borrowing from himself but not as bad as Lehrer making up quotes.”

Later that day, Yale lecturer and former New York Daily News political columnist Jim Sleeper ripped into the story (and into Zakaria) on, calling for Zakaria to also apologize to Yale:  “As long as he remains a Yale trustee, he will remain a sad example of Yale’s own transformation … into a … cultural galleria for a new elite that answers to no polity or moral code and that aggrandizes itself by plucking the fruits of others’ work.”

And Salon, in a convoluted post titled Cut, paste, plagiarize, invited Zakaria to join what writer Michael Barthel calls the “Web media,” where, he claims. “cut-and-paste” is not that “big of a deal.”

Ouch. But the Real Question Is …

TIME Magazine August 20 2012 issue.

On Thursday, Wall Street Journal foreign-affairs columnnist Brett Stephens wrote in Zakaria’s defense: “The famous pundit made a mistake, but the schadenfreude brigades are guilty of worse … We’ll see if there are other shoes to drop. Among the more mystifying aspects of this story is that plagiarism in the age of Google is an offense hiding in plain sight.” Then Stephens adds:

Why couldn’t he have added the words, ‘As the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore wrote …’? “

Why couldn’t he indeed?

Earlier in the week, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic, suggesting tongue-in-cheek that “a dose of web journalism could give Zakaria a more rigorous sourcing ethos”–and that Zakaria be forced daily to “get up six to eight beautifully sourced aggregation posts”–developed an interesting point:

“Counterintuitively, we’re training our aggregators to recognize the value in other people’s work (and brands). We’re telling them, ‘You’re as good as the people you link to.’ It’s an enduringly great attribute of print magazines that they rigorously fact-check their writing. But references to other publications are regularly stripped out of text headed to publication whenever possible at every magazine I know of.

Zakaria’s plagiarism was plagiarism, no question. Not as bad as Vladimir Putin’s alleged lifting of a hefty chunk of his dissertation (Source: Wikipedia), but wrong.

But imagine he had been writing a blog post like this one. He might have copy-pasted that paragraph, along with a link back to the original story for attribution. In print media, there is no way to link to a source. With content aggregation and curation becoming ubiquitous, is the print media tradition of forbidding references to other publications simply increasing the risk for lapses such as this to occur?

What do you think?

Photo (top) credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0.