If David Carr of the New York Times had documented more than a dozen incidents of apparent plagiarism by Fareed Zakaria, Zakaria probably would have lost his jobs with prominent media outlets.
But the accusations come from writers identified only by two odd-sounding Twitter handles. The substance of the accusations by @blippoblappo and @crushingbort in their blog Our Bad Media gets lost because we don’t know the accusers.
Zakaria gave Politico a response to the initial accusations from Our Bad Media, denying any wrongdoing, but not addressing the substance of most of the 12 instances cited in a Aug. 19 post on Our Bad Media. I have not seen any response from him to their latest post, detailing six more instances of apparent plagiarism from his best-selling book, The Post-American World.
The Paste-American World: How Zakaria Plagiarized In His International Bestseller (And The Magazines He Used To Run) https://t.co/pUxlnjkjsm
— reckless blupman (@blippoblappo) August 22, 2014
Looking at the substance of the accusations — side-by-side images highlighting verbatim and closely similar passages between Zakaria’s work and sources he never or barely cited — the offenses are similar to the 2012 plagiarism from a Jill Lepore article in the New Yorker, which brought Zakaria a suspension from the three media outlets that featured his work then. I haven’t checked them all out beyond looking at those images, but the checks I have made validate the accusations, and I presume we would have heard if any of them were not accurate.
And keep in mind that the 2012 New Yorker incident was not the first time Zakaria has been accused of plagiarism. In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg accused him of lifting from different pieces Goldberg had written for the Atlantic and the New York Times.
Looking beyond the silly names and the anonymity of the current accusers, if you examine the substance of Our Bad Media’s three blog posts about Zakaria, I see no way to defend him. I was a longtime fan of Zakaria’s work and read him regularly when I was a Newsweek subscriber. But I lost respect for him after the theft from the New Yorker. If he worked for me now, I would fire him unless he could offer a better defense than his initial response to Politico. I take it from his silence since that he hopes his prominence will trump the anonymity of the accusers and deflect attention from the substance of their allegations. And given the lack of attention to the latest accusations against him, he might be right.
The initial Our Bad Media post left a shred of doubt in my mind. On reading through it quickly, I noted that most of the examples were not verbatim ripoffs, but use of the same facts with some similar phrasing in passages that appeared that Zakaria had lifted but rewritten too much to be gotcha examples. Still, three passages were verbatim thefts, and I won’t buy coincidence as an excuse more than once, if that. I thought he was guilty, and it would have taken a strong defense to change my mind.
Zakaria’s defense said he was just using widely cited facts that other people had also used. But the second volley from Our Bad Media was more detailed and analytical, poking holes in the few specifics that Zakaria offered in his defense. And the third take, documenting extensive plagiarism in Zakaria’s book and magazines, sealed the case. I can’t imagine an editor who wouldn’t fire a journalist with this many passages so closely resembling other sources, if the accusations came from an identified and credible source.
But all three of Zakaria’s media outlets brushed aside the serious allegations.
Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, which publishes Zakaria columns, dismissed the allegation relating to a Post column as “reckless.” Hiatt hasn’t responded to the other allegations, either initially or in the subsequent post, almost an indication that plagiarism elsewhere by a columnist would be OK, as long as he didn’t plagiarize in the Post.
CNN has the highest confidence in the excellence and integrity of Fareed Zakaria’s work. In 2012, we conducted an extensive review of his original reporting for CNN, and beyond the initial incident for which he was suspended and apologized for, found nothing that violated our standards. In the years since we have found nothing that gives us cause for concern.
It was almost as if CNN didn’t even read the Our Bad Media post, which would give any ethical news organization cause for concern.
Time magazine, who was Zakaria’s third big-name employer in 2012, took the allegations most seriously, emailing Byers:
While Fareed Zakaria is no longer employed by Time Inc., Time takes these charges very seriously. In 2012, we conducted a review of Zakaria’s work for Time and were satisfied with the results of that investigation. We will be reviewing these new allegations carefully.
The CNN statement in particular would be laughable in the face of detailed documentation by the New York Times of a dozen incidents similar to the Lepore theft. But with the documentation coming from anonymous bloggers, both of Zakaria’s current employers shrugged the allegations off. Time at least sounded as though it took the allegations seriously. But I haven’t seen a follow-up on results of the Time review.
Our Bad Media made its debut in July with accusations that Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson had committed multiple acts of plagiarism. Buzzfeed, now a media giant but still scorned by much of the traditional media, initially defended Johnson, but Our Bad Media pointed out more offenses and soon Buzzfeed Editor Ben Smith announced that he had fired Johnson.
But the detailed accusations about Zakaria’s extensive plagiarism have not stuck. Slate, Talking Points Memo and Poynter took note of the latest accusations, but they haven’t caused much of a ripple. I can’t find that Hiatt, CNN or Time even bothered to respond the second time.
In an email interview with Talking Points Memo’s Tom Kludt, @crushingbort said, “We’d like to remain anonymous,” but they didn’t explain their anonymity or give any indication of their identity.
In a couple Twitter direct messages and in a comment on their blog, I have asked for an interview with @blippoblappo and @crushingbort. They have not responded.
I’m curious why they are maintaining their anonymity. I think it is only anonymity that harms their credibility. Their substance appears unassailable.
This gets me thinking about anonymity and identification in other media contexts. The very outlets that blew off Our Bad Media’s documentation as lacking in credibility (and lots of other media that haven’t jumped on this story) routinely agree to withhold the names of sources. Hiatt’s editorial page (and most newspaper editorial pages) routinely publish unsigned editorials (though the Post identifies members of its editorial board). Why is identification so important when someone is attacking a star of the establishment media, but not important when the establishment media report or editorialize?
Or is it important? In my interactions with the general public (less frequent now than when I was a newspaper editor, but they still happen), I have heard many people dismiss our credibility because we rely too much on unnamed sources and because we don’t identify the authors of our editorials (that topic comes up most often when journalists get high-and-mighty about anonymous online comments or bloggers who don’t identify themselves).
I think identification is important. I hope @blippoblappo and @crushingbort identify themselves and become well-known and respected media watchdogs. But I’m willing to look beyond their silly names. I admire the substance of their work so far. I wish the establishment media, who are selective in how important they regard identification, would care more about substance and integrity in this case than they do about identification. You can afford to be selective in when and how you think identification is important. But I think substance and integrity are always important.
Note: I have invited responses from Zakaria, @blippoblappo, @crushingbort, Fred Hiatt and representatives from CNN and Time. I’ll add any responses that I receive. I also rewrote the headline slightly after initially posting, changing “allegations” to “accusers.”