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You are here: Home Commentaries Diaspora In U.S. media, Zakaria’s plagiarism, pedigree trumped his ethnicity

In U.S. media, Zakaria’s plagiarism, pedigree trumped his ethnicity

Coverage was more likely shaped by his pedigree as one of America's elite pundits.

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Read this at the International Business Times.

By Richard Prince

The good news is that it mattered little that Fareed Zakaria is an Indian-American.

When the U.S. media reported on Time magazine and CNN's suspension of the commentator for plagiarism, their coverage was more likely shaped by Zakaria's pedigree as one of America's elite columnists, the views he's articulated and the desire to protect the credibility of a mainstream media under siege by the Wild West standards of the Internet.

Time suspended Zakaria on Aug. 10 after he apologized for copying sections of a column on gun control from an article by historian Jill Lepore of Harvard in the New Yorker.

Zakaria wrote a shorter blog post on CNN.com on the same issue that included similar unattributed excerpts, CNN said in a statement shortly afterward. Zakaria hosts a weekly CNN program, "Fareed Zakaria GPS."

Zakaria, 48, was described by Esquire magazine in 1999 as "the most influential foreign policy adviser of his generation" and has been called perhaps the most influential South Asian journalist in America.

But it wasn't his heritage that goaded the Twitterverse:

"Boggles my mind how journalists can forget the very first thing they teach you in j-school: Tell the truth. Use your own words," one said.

"Take it easy on #Zakaria, he's only 20% full of it, a much lower percentage than the rest of the #MSM," said another.

"Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright. @samseaborn @joshualyman #zakaria"

And the Indian comedian Papa CJ went for the humor: "Fareed Zakaria just screwed over all the guys who've quoted Fareed Zakaria. Now they have no idea who they've quoted!"

Americans, like people worldwide, like to see the mighty get their comeuppance.

Last year, Zakaria attempted to scale back the impression that he had been "advising" U.S. President Barack Obama, having said on CNN that Obama consults him on world issues, engaging in "very thoughtful conversation."

Writing of the suspension, investigative historian Eric Zuesse said in the Huffington Post, ". . . this wasn't merely justice, it was poetic justice: it rhymed.

"What it rhymed with was his own lifelong devotion to the global economic star system that he, as a born aristocrat in India, who has always been loyal to the aristocracy, inherited and has always helped to advance, at the expense of the public in every nation."

Zakaria, a 1986 graduate, is also a Yale University trustee. The plagiarism admission prompted a statement from University President Richard Levin that he is "in the process of convening a meeting of the Yale Corporation Committee on Trusteeship to discuss the process for reviewing this matter, which we take very seriously."

It also prompted a swipe from Jim Sleeper, a liberal-turned-conservative writer who considers Zakaria "a consummate player of the 'Third World card' against Westerners who dare to criticize his Davos neo-liberalism," a reference to the Swiss city that hosts the annual World Economic Forum. "If the Yale Corporation were to apply to itself the standards it expects its faculty and students to meet, Zakaria would have to take a leave or resign."

Not that Zakaria doesn't have his fans. On the Democratic Hub, a liberal site, "noneofyourbusiness" wrote, "Personally, I love Fareed Zakaria and hope to heaven that CNN makes him apologize and then puts him back on the air. Sunday morning is drudgery without him. TIME can do the same or my subscription goes away. PUT FAREED ZAKARIA BACK ON THE AIR! His show and essays are brilliant. I miss him!"

At the whiff of scandal, journalists follow their training: They pounce. The Washington Post's Paul Farhi wrote that Zakaria appeared to have also published without attribution a passage from a 2005 book. It turned out that Zakaria did attribute the material, and the Post apologized. But in the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg recalled that he had complained in 2009 that Zakaria had "lifted, without attribution, two quotations from pieces I had written." Others noted that Zakaria had apparently given the same commencement speech twice within 11 days.

Zakaria struck back. In an interview with Farhi, the commentator defended the practice of not attributing quotes in a non-academic book. "I should not be judged by a standard that's not applied to everyone else," he said. "People are piling on with every grudge or vendetta. . . . "

In some quarters, that was just the wrong thing to say. "Zakaria may be right that this type of quote-lifting goes on all too often," Rem Reider scolded in American Journalism Review. "But it hardly makes it right. It's completely misleading to use a quote in a way that suggests that you got it yourself when in fact you took it from someone else."

For many, Reider got to the essence of the issue. What exactly is plagiarism, and are there gray areas? And are the penalties applied equally?

The Washington Post's ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton, quoted the paper's code of ethics in writing about another case in March: "Plagiarism is one of journalism's unforgivable sins," the code states flatly. But when three-time Pulitzer winner Sari Horwitz, a 27-year Post veteran, was allowed to keep her job after being caught copying and pasting

material from the Arizona Republic in two stories. "I'm a hard-liner on plagiarism. I view it as theft," Pexton wrote.

But did Zakaria's sin rise to that level? "As my colleague Melinda Henneberger pointed out, what he's really guilty of is re-writing a paragraph summarizing a book about gun control," Delia Lloyd wrote in a Post blog. "When you compare that to, say, the Jonah

Lehrer affair at the New Yorker -- Lehrer was fired after admitting that he fabricated entire quotes for an article - Zakaria's deeds don't seem hugely horrible."

Steven Markley, writing in the Chicago Tribune's redeyechicago, agreed. "There are only so many ways to phrase certain things, especially if you're listing facts or dates.

"Also, keep in mind it's not as though a bunch of writers have decided to plagiarize just now. There were simply fewer tools to catch the plagiarists of the past. With the advent of Google and other targeted search technology, it has become significantly easier to catch it."

For David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun, the Internet provides a more compelling reason for professionals to separate themselves from the amateurs on the Web.

"Yes, such theft happens all the time by low lifes on the Internet and at shabbier publications," he wrote. "So, what? That doesn't mean we should all behave as badly as them. Let's enrich the new technology with the kind of ethical and journalistic standards we can be proud of -- not the kind that force our employers to remove our work from the Internet when our deception is revealed.

"It might not be convenient or pleasant to actually enforce real punishment against a member of the so-called media elite. But until we do, we will never start to regain the public's respect and trust."

Time and CNN lifted their suspensions of Zakaria on Aug. 16, after less than a week. After investigations, they called his transgressions an isolated incident. "GPS" is to return on CNN on Sunday, Aug. 26, and Zakaria's next Time column is scheduled for the Sept. 7 issue. (Global India Newswire)

(Richard Prince writes "Richard Prince's Journal-isms," a column on diversity issues in the news media published three times a week on the website of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, http://mije.org/richardprince)

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