Greater the height bigger the im-pact of the fall. It’s a law of physics. Suspension of CNN host and Time columnist Fareed Zakaria for plagiarism has not surprised his critics, but to us, the practising journalists, it came as a grim reminder of today’s razzmatazz media world where information bombardment happens with dazzling speed and everybody tries to take to a short route because time is in short supply.
Fareed, a Mumbai-born and foreign-bred professional, had a meteoric rise in the profession. So envious was his growth that he had lately begun to advise President Barack Obama on foreign policy. Zakaria has won several awards for his columns and cover essays in particular for his October 2001 Newsweek cover story, “Why They Hate Us.” In 1999, he was named “one of the 21 most important people of the 21st Century” by Esquire magazine. In 2007, he was named one of the “top 100 public intellectuals” by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines. He has received honorary degrees from many universities. He serves on the board of Yale University, The Council on Foreign Relations, The Trilateral Commission, and Shakespeare and Company.
The scandal that led to his ouster involves copying matter from New Yorker on gun licensing. One long paragraph of historical perspective of gun licensing in America written by Jill Lepore was seen reproduced with a few words altered. In his apology Fareed said, “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.” Not just Time, he repeated the same in a CNN blog. Hence a sack from CNN too.
Fly in troposphere
Appointing him as the Editor-at-large of Time (Only the mighty Time could think of such ticklish tag) in October 2010, its Managing Editor Richard Stengel had called him, “one of the world’s most agenda setting thinkers.” And, preening himself he condescendingly declared, “Most journalists ask the ‘what’ question very well. My training is to ask the ‘why.’ That is what exactly now people are asking ‘why steal?’
Why I said his fall from grace was not surprising is because Fareed had been accused before too on many occasions for lifting materials from other authors without attribution. In his cover story in Time in 2009 on Iran he had written, “In an interview last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Iranian regime as a ‘messianic apocalyptic cult.” Atlantic Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg blasted him, “interview with whom, exactly? It was an interview by Yours Truly for the Atlantic. And it was not ‘last week’, it was almost three months ago, Jeffrey wrote.
Interestingly, the New Yorker itself was recently involved in a scandal after one of its new hires, popular science writer Jonah Lehrer, “self-plagiarised” from some of his own earlier columns. The list of ‘disgraced’ journalist is indeed long in the US. Even Pulitzer Prize too had once gone to a fictional report.
But, while the US media are alert and allow little leeway to stealers what about the rest of the world? Are we saints? Indeed, Internet is full of plagiarism but it being an ocean and waves moving in every moment nobody has time to see it or rectify it.
Modern bane of journalism
Copy-paste journalism is facilitated by technology. The Net, the fenceless frontier, provides easy access to not just today’s happenings but the happenings of the past. It’s human tendency to go by short cut if one can help it.
But it all throws up a challenge at the gatekeepers. What an honest editor is supposed to do in today’s journalism? Is it possible for even the one whose antenna is always up to check all sources of material?
While technology-impelled stealing of ideas would continue, there are three good lessons for the current journalists from all these scandals.
Think, if you want original ideas–use search engines only for references
- Do not take readers for granted, they often know more than the writer does
- Be ready to put in a bit of hard work. Old world journalism had one distinct plus point— each writer had to slog, as Google was not born. Rare were chances to plagiarise.
- Don’t bite more than you can chew. Too much and too many can’t be handled (Fareed knows now). The result will be fiction and plagiarism, not journalism.
About the Author (Author Profile)
PK Surendran is senior editor at Postnoon.