UPDATED: Crime and punishment

As Zakaria stands trial, Lehrer gets an undeserved pardon

As Fareed Zakaria’s trial-by-blogosphere for alleged plagiarism continues, Jonah Lehrer, whom the same jury convicted of fabricating quotes last month, has received a measure of clemency from an old employer.

Last week, Time magazine and CNN suspended Zakaria for borrowing passages from a New Yorker article, without attribution, in pieces he wrote about gun control for both outlets. But critics have thrown out a related charge that Zakaria used a quote in his bestselling book, The Post-American World, without giving credit to the man who first recorded it.

On Monday, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported that Zakaria had lifted a comment from the former CEO of Intel, which originally appeared in a 2005 book by Clyde V. Prestowitz. The Daily Beast’s David Frum looked up the original hardcover and paperback editions and found documentary evidence that Zakaria had, in fact, acknowledged Prestowitz in his footnotes, however.

The Post corrected its story Wednesday morning and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon, one of many bloggers who repeated Farhi’s false allegation, also had to set the record straight, posting a note he’d received from Zakaria’s publisher, which affirmed that the author had “adhered to” its standards.

Beaujon’s credulous echoing of Farhi’s claim is indicative of a trend toward indiscriminate repetition in the media that’s arguably as troubling as the general loosening of attribution standards. Still, Beaujon was right to criticize Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum for suggesting that Zakaria didn’t need to credit Prestowitz in the first place, and he justly rejected every line of defense related to Zakaria’s light rewriting of a passage from Jill Lepore’s April 2012 New Yorker article about the National Rifle Association.

Some pundits have argued that the almost word-for-word transcription of Lepore’s work either doesn’t qualify as plagiarism, or amounts to a relatively benign and forgivable form of plagiarism. Others have suggested, without offering any supporting evidence, that Zakaria’s piracy may have resulted from the contributions of research assistants. All of these exculpatory arguments fall flat, Beaujon wrote, linking to a number of solid rebuttals from around the Net. Zakaria admitted that he made a “terrible mistake,” and there’s no excuse for what he did. But if Lehrer is any guide, he will bounce back quickly.

BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith reported Wednesday morning that Lehrer will retain his features contract with Wired magazine, which used to host Lehrer’s blog, The Frontal Cortex. According to Smith:

The new scandal “does not diminish his work as a valued contributor to the magazine and website,” said [Wired spokesman Jon Hammond], who added that Lehrer’s continuing contract with Wired, a Condé Nast sibling of the New Yorker, meant that “a couple of pieces that were already in the works” and that the magazine anticipates future contributions from him.

Wired is also “continuing our process of vetting” Lehrer’s past blog items, Hammond said; the magazine is satisfied his print pieces are original and stand up to fact-checking, he said.

That’s not good enough. It’s wrong to allow Lehrer back into the fold so soon. Based on what we know from his own statements, his lies have the feel of the desperate strokes of a man in over his head and willing to do almost anything to stay afloat. Zakaria’s failing, on the other hand, appears for now to be a plausibly honest, and isolated, mistake. That’s not to suggest he doesn’t deserve our censure and scrutiny—he does—but rather to make some distinctions in what has become a dismayingly common problem in journalism. Indeed, some editors and publishers have a tendency to forgive and forget too easily, especially when the journalist in question is a star. That’s not fair to the vast majority of reporters who play the rules and navigate this increasingly fast-paced and fluid information age without cutting corners, intentionally or otherwise.

Update: On Thursday morning, Wired’s managing editor, Jacob Young, contradicted Hammond’s comments to BuzzFeed. In a statement posted on Wired’s website, Young said Lehrer “has no current assignments” for the magazine.

Update: On Thursday afternoon, Time released the following statement: “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.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,