Fareed Zakaria, who is among today’s sharpest and clear-minded foreign policy journalists, was caught red-handed. A plagiarist. He copied a passage of a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore for his column in Time, “The Case For Gun Control.”
It was mostly a few sentences that outlined facts and numbers. He could have easily filtered the graf through a word strainer and come out clean (by using trick No. 2). Or just given credit.
On the spectrum of plagiarism, what Zakaria did was about 3 on the Jayson Blair-O-Meter, though no less excusable. Each time fraud is uncovered in someone as prolific and thoughtful as Zakaria, it calls into question everything they’ve done. Great essays like “The Rise Of Illiberal Democracy“ or the very important recent Washington Post piece refuting Romney’s claim about culture and capitalism, are marred by doubt and suspicion.
Despite the shame that comes with such a revelation, Mr. Zakaria finds himself in stellar company. Some of the Nation’s greatest minds were guilty of fraud and still made monumental contributions to the world. While there are recent cases (Jonah Lehrer, Kaavya Viswanathan to name two) and some very serious cases in history (T.S. Eliot), it is possible to live-down the scarlet “P.”
Despite their wrongdoings, some plagiarists manage to rewrite history. These three plagiarists have outlived their pasts, in spite of their thieving ways. I imagine Zakaria will be among them.
The current Vice President of the United States dropped out of the 1998 presidential race amidst plagiarism controversy. Biden lifted portions of his stump speech from British Party Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. The news launched a probe that revealed other uncredited passages by Biden, including several sentences from Vice President Hurbert Humphrey and President John F. Kennedy. Biden said he did credit Kinnock in many of his speeches but neglected to cite the original author in the appearance that got him busted, that happened to be taped,
The original story was broken by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who was later caught in a plagiarism scandal herself.
The celebrated author won a Pulitzer prize for Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a tale of an African family snatched from their homeland and forced into chains and slavery. It’s a brutal and captivating story that spawned a miniseries and made Haley a literary star.
Mr. Haley, who claimed that Kunti’s story was ripped from the pages of his own family history, in fact, stole much of it from Harold Courlander’s book The African. In 1978, plagiarism claims surfaced and Haley later settled out of court, paying Courlander a reported $650,000.
Beyond the Roots debacle, Haley’s indiscretions have cast a shadow over the Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book he had written ten years prior to Roots. Malcolm X’s biography was a life-chainging piece of work to many of its readers, and yielded a Spike Lee film (that was wrongly snubbed at the 1992 Academy Awards). With the revelation that Haley blatantly stole portions of Roots, he has added an asterisk to the important and inspirational work.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1988, the MLK Papers Project was deployed to pull together the Civil Rights Icon’s work so that it could be organized for publication. Instead of great prose and powerful essays, they discovered that one of our nation’s moral leaders performed the immoral act of word/idea thievery. Whereas, Zakaria took a few lines of facts from his mark, King outright mugged other theologians.
After poring over his works, the MLK Papers Project found that he lifted more than half of the words in his doctoral thesis. King also copied word-for-word portions of another student’s thesis. Even after his years in academia, he went on to take from other writers for his first book, Striding Towards Freedom.
While these revelations do muddy the waters when it comes to image and moral stances, they mostly reveal how one (or more) bad act(s) doesn’t always define one’s life or legacy. While much violence has been done to Zakaria’s reputation and credibility, he may emerge as a more focused and careful journalist.
I’m hoping that it serves as a wakeup call that gives him a needed lesson in humility to puncture the arrogant bubble that allowed him to think it possible or acceptable to copy a colleague’s work without attribution. It would do us all good if he spent the rest of his career trying to prove that he is worthy of trust.