When columnist and best-selling author Fareed Zakaria was suspended by Time magazine and CNN for plagiarizing a paragraph in an essay from The New Yorker, I feared for him. A career so brilliant could soon be snuffed out just because of one inexplicably stupid mistake. On top of that, it was possible that Yale University, where Zakaria sits on the governing board, would fire him.
Plagiarism is an offense for which students are routinely kicked out and professors are coldly shown the door.
His troubles multiplied. When he explained that he had relied on a researcher who cut-and-pasted the plagiarized paragraph, detractors seethed: he had no business allowing a researcher to ghostwrite for him. Word spread that he had a battalion of nameless researchers ghosting for him.
He was accused of “lifting interview quotes without attribution” and giving no credit to interviewers. Among other crimes ascribed to him: he delivered the same commencement address on two separate occasions.
David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, came to Zakaria’s defense. He checked on the charge that Zakaria had lifted quotes without attribution and proved it false. As to crediting the interviewer involved in the quote, Frum and Zakaria himself pointed out that most quotes from interviews do not mention the interviewer.
In the end the only accusation that stuck was that one act of plagiarism.
For a while I brooded that one who had achieved so much in a sullen and demanding craft would be irrevocably stripped of all respectability and ostracized.
I worried too much too quickly. Days after the theft was discovered and Zakaria apologized “for a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault,” he was reinstated by both Time and CNN.
Time explained that he had made an “unintentional error” in an “isolated incident.” CNN said, “We found nothing that merited continuing the suspension.”
Zakaria resigned from Yale. His letter of resignation read like his only fault was that he could not give the institution the time that it required of him as a governor.
I didn’t like that, but on the whole I felt relieved. And I was certainly pleased at the rebuke of the holier-than-thou journalists who swarmed around Zakaria like a school of sharks crazed by the scent of blood.
But now a thought bothers me: maybe he got off lightly. What if one of my students in writing class submitted a piece that was lifted from a popular book? And what if I confronted her and she saucily replied, “Fareed Zakaria did it. And it was OK.”
Would I chastise her by saying, “Well, young lady, you’re not Fareed Zakaria”?
In the end it’s not our business to make judgments or excuses for transgressors. It well may be that plagiarism is its own punishment: the unshakable feeling that in a moment of weakness one stooped to being an intellectual parasite and daubed on his own name a taint that a lifetime of remorse cannot erase. It well may also be that for extraordinary individuals like Zakaria, redemption requires no Calvary.
All we can do is go back to our craft and exercise it with honesty. And to anyone who listens, we can make the case for originality — and insist that at least in the craft of writing for print, authenticity and integrity demand originality.
Nothing is new under the sun and rain: knowledge and data are everywhere. But there are countless new ways of viewing raw data in new combinations and new ways of giving utterance to that view. You need only to work hard.
On the other hand, plagiarism is an insidious plague. And the world in which it thrives may soon become fuzzy with laziness and mediocrity.