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. Continue reading