Plagiarism is not a crime in any legal code, but among people who make their living with words, there is no deeper offense. The plagiarist has not just stolen the work of another writer; he has used it to disguise his own inadequacy. It is a symptom of -laziness, to be sure; but above all, it’s a crime of arrogance.
Here at The Scrapbook, we tend to think of plagiarism in biblical terms: a sin that must be punished. Famous plagiarists—Molly Ivins, Stephen Ambrose, Arianna Huffington, Doris Kearns Goodwin, among others—have claimed, as an excuse, that their plagiarism was inadvertent: So busy and absorbed were they in their important work that they forgot whether the words in question were their own, or something they had read or copied. Well, we’re not buying it, and no one who has ever written an original sentence would believe it. Plagiarism is not just the theft of others’ work, but the brazen, intentional, and premeditated theft of others’ work.
Which brings us to Fareed -Zakaria. The Scrapbook confesses to a certain fascination with Zakaria: A thoroughly predictable mind with an exotic background and gift for self-promotion, he has parlayed his act into a nifty little career. In the course of a decade or two he has jumped from Foreign Affairs to Newsweek to Time to ABC to CNN and the Washington Post on the strength of a confident demeanor and a near-magical instinct for the conventional wisdom: Thomas L. Friedman with an Indian accent.
Part of The Scrapbook’s fascination lies in the obvious tension within the Zakaria format: He is just smug enough and sufficiently self-satisfied to repeat what he believes his audience wants to hear; and yet he remains afflicted with a cultural tin ear. No one at Newsweek or CNN or the Post seems to have informed him that assuring audiences that he is very smart is not in itself very smart, or that arguments aren’t necessarily clinched by mentioning one’s Harvard doctorate.
So it was with a certain interest that The Scrapbook learned of -Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism last week. As such cases go, it was a standard transgression: To produce a column about gun control he lifted several passages from an essay by Jill Lepore which had appeared in a recent issue of the New Yorker. And as such cases go, this revelation was swiftly followed by others. Author Jeffrey Goldberg came forward to complain that quotations from an interview he conducted with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been lifted by -Zakaria without credit. And others have pointed out that Zakaria’s Harvard commencement address, delivered in May, was largely indistinguishable from his Duke commencement address, delivered two weeks earlier. Self-plagiarism, if you will.
Once it was discovered that -Zakaria had passed Lepore’s work off as his own, he admitted to a “horrible mistake,” and Time, CNN, and the Washington Post announced that he was being suspended for an indefinite period. Which, in the cases of CNN and Time, turned out to be not especially indefinite. Less than a week after Zakaria’s suspension for his “journalistic lapse” (Time’s term), he was reinstated—and will no doubt proceed from strength to strength, a sadder but wiser pundit.
Well, The Scrapbook has three observations to offer about this sorry episode. First, if we had any authority in the matter, Zakaria’s suspensions would not have been indefinite but conclusive. If there is any firing offense in the practice of journalism, surely it is plagiarism. Second, we have a suspicion—based on a lifetime’s experience of the way things work—that it may not have been Fareed Zakaria who plagiarized Jill Lepore, but some poor 23-year-old assistant who probably drafts the columns that “Fareed Zakaria” churns out. It would have been convenient, of course, to throw the intern under the bus, but if such was the explanation, Zakaria chose to keep this embarrassing secret to himself.
As for The Scrapbook’s third observation, it takes the form of a question: What were Harvard—and Oberlin and Bates and Brown and Johns Hopkins and the University of Miami—thinking when they conferred honorary degrees on Fareed Zakaria?