In his weekly “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
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.