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.