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?