Of Fareed Zakaria, Scraping, Plagiarism and Hypocrisy

Is it “Oops!”, “Damn!” or “Better luck next time”?

I once had a dear friend in the DC theater community who committed an industry taboo when he mounted a play before, rather than after, obtaining the performing rights. His company was in the red, and his intent was to get some advance sales to pay the licensing fees that he otherwise couldn’t afford. It was a desperate, foolish scheme and an unethical one, as he readily admitted, and my friend paid dearly for it, as he was fired as the head of the theater company he had founded, and rendered a pariah in the community. What always infuriated him, however, was the instant condemnation and pious pronouncements he received from his peers in the theater world. “I know for a fact that everyone of them either would have done the same thing or had done the same thing, or worse, to keep their theaters running,” he told me.  “I was wrong and I know I was wrong, but for them to act as if I am some kind of a monster when I know they are really thinking, ‘Yikes! I better be more careful, that could have been me!’ is driving me crazy.”

I wonder if disgraced CNN host and Time writer Fareed Zakaria is thinking the same thing as his colleagues in the news media and assorted web commentators are describing him as a plagiarist and an untrustworthy fraud in the wake of his suspension for lifting a paragraph from another writer’s work  and putting it in his own Time essay without attribution. After the parallel passages were flagged on the conservative website Newsbusters (you didn’t think he would have been outed by a liberal site, did you—or that Newsbusters would have been looking for plagiarism from a rightward  journalist?) both Time and CNN suspended Zakaria indefinitely.

This was the appropriate response. Zakaria is an opinion journalist, or a pundit: the idea that he is surreptitiously cribbing from others undermines his credibility substantially and perhaps fatally. That is not an entirely fair description of what Zakaria did, however.  What he engaged in was “scraping,”  the web-age technique where an author cuts and pastes a passage or more from another work and uses it as the foundation for a portion of a supposedly original article. When the passage in question is substantive, contains the ideas and conclusions of the author  whose work is being scraped, or is the product of another writer’s research, that is indeed plagiarism. When the passage being scraped is something the borrowing author could have written himself, however, it is more accurately described as lazy. It is still wrong, but it does not necessarily rise to the level of intellectual theft that can reasonably justify calling the author untrustworthy. I believe that most professional writers on the web have or do engage in the latter kind of scraping, either due to poor typing skills, a tight schedule, deadlines or, again, laziness. Those who haven’t been caught are simply better at it than Zakaria was, which does not mean they are necessarily ethically superior. Here is the paragraph he scraped, from an article on gun control by Jill Lepore in her April 22 essay for The New Yorker:

“As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

What we have is two quotes and some easily obtainable facts, making the unremarkable point that the idea of regulating guns in America is not new. Zakaria wanted to use the facts, and liked the quotes; quite probably he already knew about the history of gun regulations. By scholarly practice, his proper course would be to quote the article with attribution, or use the substance of it in his own words and footnote it to Lepore’s article. Magazines like Time, however, seldom meet scholarly standards; authors routinely state facts and recite quotations with revealing or crediting their sources, especially if the sources are secondary. Maybe Zakaria was in a rush; maybe he employs a subordinate writer who was cutting corners, or he and Lepore both used a paragraph from talking points being circulated by an anti-gun organization, as Ann Althouse has suggested. Whatever the reason, what he wrote for Time was this:

“Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

Obviously, this was a scraping job, and without attribution to the original source, misappropriation of another writer’s work, if not opinion. But what if he had scraped a little more carefully and written this:

The U.S. has always regulated firearms, contrary to common belief. U.C.L.A constitutional law professor Adam Winkler has written a book (“Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America”) that illustrates this clearly. Kentucky and Louisiana banned carrying concealed weapons as far back as 1813, followed by Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia 18 years later, Alabama a year after that, and Ohio in 1959. Soon similar gun regulations were on the books in  Florida,  Oklahoma and Texas, where the governor said in in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

I think that is still scraping, but would not probably not be considered plagiarism if it included a cite. That means it wouldn’t be regarded as plagiarism without a cite, but rather an improperly un-cited source.  Yet this careful scraping really isn’t any more ethical than what Zakaria did with same passage, unless we adopt the principle that it’s more ethical to cheat effectively than sloppily.

Fareed Zakaria got caught engaging in an unethical practice that more journalists are guilty of than the their profession would like to admit, and the tenor of the criticism of him has the distinct whiff of relief mixed with hypocrisy. The solution is simple: journalists and columnists should start listing their sources, all of them, in their articles. As for Zakaria, he should suffer no more diminution of prestige and credibility from this one incident than the famous scholars who have been caught doing the same, like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Larry Tribe. His transgression is more one of diligence than dishonesty. If his embarrassment reduces the instances of scraping, he will have done his profession a service.

I do have a question for Zakaria, however. In his otherwise exemplary apology [ “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.”], he says he made “a terrible mistake.” What was the mistake? Was it not citing the source of the passage, scraping it, or just not scraping it as well as his critics scrape the work they surreptitiously appropriate when a deadline looms?


Spark: Ethics Bob

Facts: Huffington Post

Source: Ann Althouse

Graphic: Talk of the Town

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

11 thoughts on “Of Fareed Zakaria, Scraping, Plagiarism and Hypocrisy

  1. I, for one, hope Fareed can put this behind him quickly and get back to work. He’s an excellent journalist in my opinion; his program GPS is a personal favourite of mine. I admit to being disappointed by his transgression, but your commentary on scraping does provide some interesting perspective.

  2. I think what bothers me more than “to plagiarize or not to plagiarize” is the idea that he just took the facts as they were published by the other author. As you point out, they are perhaps easily obtainable facts but his overall lazy attitude would imply that he did not check them. It also implies that he likely did not know these facts without looking them up. He is leaving himself open to the other author getting them wrong or even something as simple as a typo by the other author which would have him putting out ‘facts’ that are incorrect. With the internet, pretty soon, those false facts become generally accepted.

    Well, OK, that and the fact that opinion writers are never journalists in my opinion. Which means, I wouldn’t have expected him to check facts and wouldn’t have relied on any ‘facts’ he did provide to be accurate.

    All that said, I am speaking generally. I have never read anythng he wrote and actually had not even heard of him until I read this.

    • Jack,
      I cannot find his original piece in its entirety, so I am only surmising off of yours.
      Good post and I would agree with Danielle as to the accuracy of stated facts when one plagiarizes, it implies a lack of resourcing and fact checking. Citing I believe eliminates this as it points out a source of information. In reality that source can be wrong but the appearance of due diligence does have an effect. If this piece was a wholly original one I would expect some citations somewhere or I would not personally give it any credence.

  3. They should name a theater in this town after your friend. If it wasnt for him the only theater you would have in this town would be Arena Stage, The Washington Shakespeare Co, MAYBE The Studio theatre and the touring shows.

    • I know, and you are 100% right. That one incident made him radioactive for over a decade, plus he burned bridges like there was no tomorrow, but he was as responsible for the diverse professional theater scene in DC as anyone, and has never received proper recognition and respect. But as you know, Bill, that’s often the case.

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