Fareed Zakaria (Getty photo)
By Casey Bukro
Fareed Zakaria finds himself the target of anonymous bloggers who accuse him of plagiarism.
Zakaria says he is not a plagiarist, but media carrying his columns on international affairs — Newsweek, The Washington Post and Politico — have posted corrections or editor’s notes advising readers that Zakaria had not sufficiently attributed sources for material in some of his columns.
Now take a step back for a minute to ponder how the case underscores differences in the way journalism works now, compared with just a few years ago.
In the past, even a whiff of plagiarism was a firing offense. The hammer came down hard in most cases. Mike Barnicle was fired from the Boston Globe for plagiarism. Jayson Blair was booted from the New York Times for similar offenses, plagiarism and fabrication.
And some editors in the past would dismiss information from anonymous sources as lacking credibility unless identity and motivation were known.
In the Zakaria case, the sources are bloggers known only as BlippoBlappo and CrushingBort who consider themselves plagiarism watchdogs at Our Bad Media. They cited 50 examples of what they considered insufficient attribution in Zakaria’s columns. They describe themselves as two young men who are not journalists.
Zakaria also appears on CNN in a program focusing on international affairs. He is widely respected and seen or read on multiple platforms. And that’s part of the problem, say the anonymous plagiarism sleuths. They say Zakaria is treated with a deference that is not shown to minor league journalists. He continues to write columns for media that attached warnings to some of his past columns.
Maybe that makes what he did correctable or excusable. Another new slant on journalism as it is done today, when the focus is more on finance and new business models. And maybe some editors believe lack of attribution is not plagiarism.
The Columbia Journalism Review points out that “outcry within the journalistic community, meanwhile, has been unexpectedly mute, with many discussions focused on the semantic question of whether Zakaria’s mistakes constitute what some news organizations consider an unforgivable sin.”
Zakaria admitted to a “mistake” in 2012, but said that for the most part he uses information that is generally or widely known.
In tweaking its code of ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists this year added “always attribute” to a long-time admonition to “never plagiarize.”
National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel began a segment on Zakaria by pointing out that The Washington Post was the fifth news organization to say “that work it has published by Zakaria appears to have attribution problems.”
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik said the anonymous bloggers argue that “he’s done so much lifting unattributed characterizations of other people’s reporting that it amounts to plagiarism.”
Folkenflik went on to say that other critics insist Zakaria “is getting away with stuff that others wouldn’t be allowed to do who are more junior, who don’t have the brand-name recognition that he does…”
Dylan Byers of Politico.Com also outlined the campaign waged by the anonymous “plagiarism detectives,” and reported that Zakaria, in an email to Politico, argued “that he simply cited the same facts as others, which did not constitute plagiarism.”
Others say it’s a troubling pattern.
Writer Lloyd Grove wondered if Zakaria can survive the firestorm.
CNN, however, said it stands by Zakaria.