(The views expressed are the author's own and not those of
By Steven Brill
NEW YORK Aug 21 Suppose I steal my neighbor
Jill's flat-screen television and install it in my living room.
Jill or one of her friends who knows about Jill's missing
television comes over to my house a few days later, notices the
television and asks, "Hey, isn't that Jill's television?"
I immediately confess. "Yes, it is," I say. I'm really
sorry. It was a mistake."
Jill or any interested observer or even the police might
ask, "What do you mean by 'mistake'? Did you mistakenly break
into her house and mistakenly haul her huge flat-screen into
your living room and set it up on the wall?"
Well, so far, most of the press seems content to let a
colleague - Fareed Zakaria, who writes for Time and the
Washington Post and has a Sunday CNN talk show - get off with
exactly that explanation for stealing something. In this case,
the theft was plagiarism.
As has been widely reported, it was discovered the week
before last that Zakaria's essay in that week's edition of Time
and on an accompanying blog post on CNN.com about gun control
had a key, fact-filled paragraph that was almost identical to a
paragraph in an April issue of the New Yorker by Harvard
professor Jill Lepore. Two other important paragraphs, while not
nearly as word-for-word, basically track what Lepore wrote. The
three paragraphs - tracing the surprisingly long history of gun
control laws in America - are by far the meatiest and seemingly
most original parts of Zakaria's 11-paragraph Time column.
After media reports - which started with a blog post by
Newsbusters, a conservative media watchdog organization
-detailed the apparent copying of Lepore's work, Zakaria issued
the following statement on August 10:
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 22nd 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.
Following that statement, Time and CNN said they were
suspending Zakaria pending their own investigations; both
statements said or implied that they were seeking to find out
how Zakaria's "mistake" happened and, more important, whether
any of his other work might have contained similar lapses. The
Washington Post, noting that his column was "on vacation" in
August, said it, too, would investigate his prior work but that
his column was expected to resume in September.
Just six days later, Time and CNN announced that their
investigations were over and Zakaria was being reinstated.
Here's what Time's statement announcing that all is forgiven
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.
Time, CNN and Zakaria owe their readers and viewers a lot
more than that, and the rest of the press should be embarrassed
if it lets those statements end the story.
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
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
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.
Zakaria also told the Times that he had reluctantly hired a
research assistant to help him handle the workload, but that the
assistant did not draft his articles. If his more complete
explanation turns out to be that he is taking the bullet for a
research assistant, readers at CNN.com and Time deserve to know
that, too, and deserve to know what he's doing to cut down on
his workload so that he can be fully responsible for the work
that bears his name. And reporters deserve to know the name of
the research assistant, not to embarrass him or her but so that
they can interview him or her to verify the story.
However, if it turn out that this was more than a paper
mix-up or a researcher's rookie mistake, and that the pressures
of all those paying gigs actually made Zakaria steal Lepore's
work - something for which he could have been thrown out of the
two universities (Harvard and Yale) that adorn his resume - CNN
and Time should explain why he's being forgiven and what he's
doing to cut down on his workload and multiple payrolls. More
than that, reporters should press CNN and Time on why even one
commission of what, along with fabrication, is journalism's most
basic breach of trust gets a pass. Would I be able to explain to
the police that my flat-screen might be stolen, but I swear
everything else in my house was bought honestly?
The same Times story that initially referred to his busy
schedule, noted that Zakaria had been criticized for giving
basically the same paid graduation speech at two commencements
this spring. I'm not sure how bad an offense that is, but it
does raise another question: Where, other than at universities,
has he been such a busy paid speaker? Has he been paid to speak
to groups -- such as those representing major industries or
international constituencies (a group that seeks enhanced
free-trade agreements, for example) -- that have special
interests related to issues he reports about or whose leaders
have been covered in his writings or on his TV show?
A column by David Carr in the Times, also on Monday,
compared Zakaria's transgression to those of Jonah Lehrer, who
was found to have plagiarized his own work by recycling it in
the New Yorker, among other places, and also to have fabricated
quotes in his best-selling book, Imagine. Declaring Lehrer to be
the far worse actor - which based on all the available evidence
is clearly true - Carr wrote this about Zakaria: "He apologized,
was suspended, and Time and CNN investigated whether there was a
deeper problem and decided there was not. He was reinstated on
Thursday. End of story."
(Steven Brill is the author of Class Warfare: Inside the
Fight To Fix America's Schools, has written for magazines
including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New
York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American
Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's
Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he
founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.)