Since August, I’ve been noting and commenting on the detailed documentation of Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism by the blog Our Bad Media.
The bloggers, identified only as @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, agreed to an email interview. Their answers to my questions are below. As you will see, I asked a lot of questions (some of them supplied by my students). The bloggers grouped related questions and answered them below. They each gave their own responses in an interview with Newsweek, but they responded together to my questions, so I will just list them in the interview below as Our Bad Media.
Here’s the format: We’ll start with my questions. I will note which questions came from students. Their answers will follow in bold. Both my questions and their answers are edited only lightly here, fixing a few typos or dropped words and adding some links (their email included some, too). If I have any comment on their answers, that will follow in italics.
I’m a little chagrined at the length of my questions now that I see them in this format. When I’m not on Twitter, I sometimes forget the lessons I’ve learned about brevity. But I think these bloggers’ work has been interesting and I thank them for these detailed, thoughtful responses.
Buttry: I’m interested in why you investigated Zakaria. You told Newsweek you were interested in checking how well editors checked claims of malfeasance by their star writers and the claims about checking Zakaria’s work in 2012 “seemed like a perfect place” to look. But this was two years later. Did something else raise suspicions? Or did someone tip you? Did you read something Zakaria wrote that sounded familiar? Did you wonder after he was reinstated in 2012 whether they really checked? Did you check someone else out first, but he was the first place you found ripoffs? I’d be interested in knowing why you turned to him after exposing Benny Johnson.
Our Bad Media: We figured that if we were going to find any more examples of plagiarism, it would make sense to look into journalists who had already faced previous accusations. It was especially hard to resist given that the Post, CNN and other outlets quickly claimed it was an isolated incident and very publicly vouched for his credibility after proclaiming to have “reviewed” his work. The implications of them not having done so were pretty enticing.
Buttry comment: I’ve often speculated that no one gets caught their first time plagiarizing. I don’t know why I wasn’t more skeptical myself in 2012. I hope I was distracted and didn’t pay much attention to his reinstatement. I’m glad Our Bad Media checked his work more thoroughly than his employers. I’d love to know whether they didn’t really check (I doubt it), made cursory checks and didn’t see anything blatant (the likeliest contender, in my view), checked using software that didn’t catch him because of the subtle changes Zakaria often made in his stolen passages (maybe, but some of the passages weren’t changed that much; if plagiarism software doesn’t catch that, it’s worthless) or checked thoroughly and saw some of the passages that Our Bad Media has noted and didn’t consider them to be plagiarism (doubtful, but their slowness in responding to the overwhelming proof of plagiarism makes me wonder).
Buttry: You’ve said you agree with what I’ve been saying. One of the things I’ve said is that you’d be taken more seriously if you identified yourselves. Have you considered lifting the veil? Would you consider identifying yourselves in my blog? If you’re going to stay anonymous, why? Do you hold sensitive positions where this work might not be allowed or appreciated? Are you just shy? Having fun being anonymous? Related question from one of my students: Does anonymity hinder or help your cause?
Our Bad Media: We understand the curiosity of who we are, but we’ve never really gotten a satisfactory answer as to how not knowing our names impacts the substance of the charges. Everyone, reporters and otherwise, can check our examples and verify them independently. But it’s also interesting that most everyone asking us to identify ourselves has been a journalist or someone in those circles. Outside of those circles, people tend to care more about what Zakaria and Johnson did. As far as the idea of facing retribution for this, we have zero reservations about our work—stealing is stealing, and we haven’t done anything wrong in bringing that to light. But given that Capital New York reported on what looked like retribution for covering our work, we’re not really eager to test whether the outlets and journalists implicated here agree with that view.
Buttry comment: I wish the bloggers would identify themselves. I’d like to give them credit for their outstanding research, their persistence and their help in calling out one of journalism’s gravest sins. But I agree with them completely: We don’t need their names to evaluate the substance of their allegations, which are documented with screenshots and links. Their choice to remain anonymous (they prefer the term pseudonymous; I think both are accurate) should not affect their credibility, especially when they are critiquing a profession that prides itself on protecting unnamed sources.
Buttry: OK, I’m going to parse your answers here a little like we do with politicians. Newsweek asked you: “Do either of you have any background in media, or want to be in media?” @blippoblappo replied: “We’re not reporters, and we are not looking to use our posts on plagiarism as a means to land a job in the industry.” @crushingbort replied: “I once did a hard-hitting story in the school paper on the poor quality of our drinking fountains, but no, I don’t consider myself a journalist by any means.” Neither of those replies answered the question of whether you have a background in the media. For instance, I’m not a reporter either and I’m not looking to land a job in the media, but I sure have a background in the media. And, since I blog and spent years in journalism, I do consider myself a journalist, but I know some retired journalists, former journalists and journalism professors who would answer that they don’t consider themselves journalists now. So here’s my question: What journalism and media experience, if any, do you have? Academia is another field where plagiarism is a big deal. Are either of you faculty (whether in journalism or another field) at a college or university? Or have you been?
Our Bad Media: We honest-to-god do not have any professional, semi-professional, or hobbyist background in journalism, outside of Bort’s schoolwork. Neither of us are (or have been) faculty or staff at any institution of higher education.
Buttry comment: OK, I’m going to take their word for this, but still keep wondering about their heavy interest in this. Theories I’m mulling:
- They are in the media but are not journalists. Note that I asked about “journalism and media” experience. Since they denied having journalism experience but omitted “media” from their denial, I wonder if they might be in advertising, audience development, technology or some other role with a media company.
- Speaking of technology, I wonder if they work in some technology field, perhaps something that serves media companies or otherwise overlaps with media. Some of their posts indicate a fairly high level of digital savvy.
- Maybe they’re in public relations. Again, close to the media and possibly resentful and/or scornful of how journalists view ourselves as more pure than those who have “sold out” and gone into PR. Even if not resentful, PR people have a strong interest in media, and you’d need a strong interest to do the research and writing these guys have done.
- Possibly in politics or government. Again, likely to have a strong interest in media and possibly be resentful or scornful of journalists and our arrogance.
And, by the way, if you’re blogging you’re journalists now, but that’s an old and tired argument.
Further, if all of those theories are wrong and these guys (they did confirm male gender to me) are just media consumers with a strong sense of ethics, good for them! Actually, good for them whatever the case. They have done a lot of work and care more about journalism ethics and have higher ethical standards than some of the most respected companies in the business. While I wish they would identify themselves, I applaud their work and respect their choice to remain known only by their ridiculous Twitter handles.
One more point on this: Why doesn’t some journalism organization employ these guys as full-time or part-time plagiarism watchdogs? Or pay someone else to do what they are doing on their own time out of some kind of strong interest? Someone — Poynter, Nieman Lab, a J-school, CJR (which published a good piece this week on plagiarism, including this case) — should offer these guys a job. Make identification a condition of employment if you like. I bet they’d identify if someone wanted to turn this passion into a job.
Buttry: Question from a student: Did either of the anonymous bloggers get something plagiarized by Zakaria? And my follow-up: Were either of you plagiarized by Johnson? Or anyone else?
Our Bad Media: Neither of us have been plagiarized by anyone in the press, including Johnson or Zakaria (well, as far as we know – hard to rule out Zakaria lifting from anything, including my weekly shopping list). We’re not doing this as a response to having been victims of plagiarism, although we may have complained a few times back in the day about stolen tweets (a different beast entirely).
Buttry: You told Newsweek that you’d “found a number of other examples.” You didn’t know then when or whether you might publish those examples. Can you tell me how many other journalists you’re already looking into? Did you choose them out of curiosity or suspicion? Or did someone steer you in their direction?
Our Bad Media: We’re doing what other journalists won’t. Our suspicions are entirely our own, but they don’t come from any “sixth sense” or outsider tips. Imagine you thought our journalism was deficient when it came to holding your own field accountable for plagiarism. Where would you go? Checking out the star of the top aggregation site seems like a perfect place to start, and looking into a brand-name journalist who already went through a plagiarism scandal is the natural next step.
Buttry comment: Did you note the “other journalists” and “our journalism” references? Are they playing with us, dropping hints that they really are journalists, despite their denials? Or maybe they embrace my point that their blogging about journalism makes them journalists?
Buttry: With the Slate, Newsweek and Washington Post corrections, we now have three news organizations taking your accusations seriously at some level. What do you think would be an appropriate response to what you’ve revealed about Zakaria and why do you think organizations haven’t responded appropriately? Related question from a student: How infuriating is the distinct lack of response from the journalistic community?
Our Bad Media: In 2012, Zakaria served a week-long suspension for the lifting of a single paragraph of work. We’ve brought to light over 50 instances of attribution errors, over a dozen of which have been serious enough to merit correction. There’s no precedent for that many corrections without corresponding disciplinary action. The lack of response isn’t surprising, but it is unfortunately revealing about the state of the media today. Zakaria’s employers are weighing the benefits of maintaining a star brand versus doing the right thing and holding a serial plagiarist accountable. Without his fellow journalists demanding consequences, that equation doesn’t add up to CNN or the Washington Post doing the right thing.
Buttry comment: I couldn’t agree more. The weak response to this mountain of evidence from news organizations I respect has been disappointing and troubling.
I think plagiarism is a firing offense. I was fortunate not to have any accusations of plagiarism on my watch as editor, but I would have fired a staffer who plagiarized, probably with no second chances. I certainly would have fired one who plagiarized as extensively as Zakaria did.
But I could respect another organization’s decision for a punishment/acknowledgment that amounted to less than firing. But I cannot imagine how you justify anything less than another suspension (no brushing all these other offenses off for time served), a public acknowledgment by him of his offenses, education about proper attribution and close monitoring of future stories.
Plagiarism is a serious offense and news organizations need to take it more seriously. I was glad to see this statement on Twitter yesterday from Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society. I hope more journalists and leaders of news organizations echo her.
Buttry: Have you checked out anyone whose work didn’t seem to include any examples of plagiarism (that you could find)? Tom Friedman comes to mind, since you did a post that made fun of his overuse of a cliché, but didn’t bust him for plagiarism. Would you be willing to name (here or in one of your posts) journalists you’ve checked out whose work appears to be entirely original, to the extent that you’ve checked?
Our Bad Media: We can’t clear anyone of plagiarism – we have not done a review of any journalist to the extent that we’ve done it with Zakaria.
Buttry: How big a deal is plagiarism anyway? As a journalist, I think it’s a big deal, but I wonder sometimes if it’s a bigger deal to us than to the public. Most of Zakaria’s work was accurate (I remember a couple times you caught him in factual errors). Especially if you’re not journalists, I’d like to know why you think it’s a big deal.
Our Bad Media: There are a lot of terrible opinions and ideas floating around in journalism today and that’s all part of the normal discourse, but it used to generally be accepted that you have to draw the line at stealing other’s work. We mentioned early on the irony of that standard of Johnson getting the boot for plagiarism when he’d published anonymous death threats against Edward Snowden without repercussion.
Zakaria’s case is different. He demonstrates that if you build a successful media brand around dispensing conventional wisdom (the kind that appeals to the rich and powerful), you’re held to a different standard, immune to any charges of ethical wrongdoing (look how closely the responses from his outlets re: his paid speeches mirrors the dismissals we got). Our anonymity was used as a reason to dismiss the charges even though they were far worse and more extensive than what originally got him suspended in 2012.
We’re not in the media but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate good journalism, and when you look at solid, hard-hitting reporting (the example we gave to Newsweek was the NYT on the lobbying of state attorneys general) there’s just a vast gulf between the work that goes into articles written by actual gumshoes and the sort of intellectually lazy, warmed-over takes of our biggest papers’ opinion pages. And it’s not the latter losing their jobs.
Buttry: Does medium or assistance matter? By which I mean, is attribution more important in writing and less important on TV or important in print writing but not blogging? Does it matter if Zakaria is getting help from research assistants or TV writers who are committing this plagiarism and his offense is just reading it on the air or failing to catch the lack of attribution or taking credit for his staff’s work?
Our Bad Media: Asking for attribution does not entail a demand for footnotes during cable news broadcasts. If Zakaria’s defenders don’t understand that, perhaps they need to go back to J-School. If words are coming out of your mouth – especially on a show that bears your name – you have to be held responsible for them, regardless of who may be writing them. For the record, we’re unconvinced that Zakaria did not write the words in his script, considering how much of the show is based on the columns he’s written for the Washington Post & TIME.
Buttry comment: I agree. Journalists are responsible for the work under our bylines and for what we say on the air. If someone is lucky enough to have staff doing some of your work for you, you are responsible for setting high standards and holding them to those standards. If Zakaria had fired a staff member for plagiarism and investigated and found all these offenses himself, I would absolve him of primary responsibility. But his defense of blatant plagiarism makes it irrelevant whether he committed the plagiarism. It happened on his show and under his byline. He’s responsible.
And I don’t think plagiarism should be acceptable in any medium. How you attribute may vary between media — for instance, you can’t link in print or broadcast content — but journalists should cite our sources in all media.
Buttry (with a student’s question): Does it seem from this story some of the biggest news outlets and journalism companies are more concerned about their image than maintaining high journalism ethics?
Our Bad Media: Simple answer: yes.
Another student question: How much blame should editors take for allowing such plagiarism to take place, although they did not actually commit the plagiarism?
Our Bad Media: We can’t expect editors to catch every instance of plagiarism that sneaks through the cracks. We can demand that they perform due diligence when it comes to checking the work of their outlet’s biggest stars, like Johnson and Zakaria. And when editors say they review a body of work for plagiarism, they need to be held to their word. I think the biggest takeaway from the Zakaria story isn’t that he’s a bad actor, but that his editors at the Washington Post willfully misled readers when they said they reviewed his work in 2012. Only after our prodding – two years after the “review” – did the paper issue corrections. How did they miss those? And why hasn’t any journalist bothered to ask them?
Buttry comment: I emailed Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt in September, asking his response to one of my blog posts that criticized the Post. He has not responded. I also have invited response in the past from Zakaria and CNN and have not receive any. I’m not sending out new messages directly inviting response this time. But I welcome responses from Zakaria, Hiatt, CNN or Time. You can respond in the comments or email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.
Another student question: Is Fareed Zakaria trying to hold onto what reputation he can still maintain at this point or does he believe that these instances are truly not plagiarism?
Our Bad Media: We can’t speak to Zakaria’s mental state right now. If Zakaria knew what he was doing, that’s obviously wrong. On the other hand, if Zakaria thinks that lifting entire paragraphs verbatim and extensive patchwriting are “truly not plagiarism,” that in itself is incredibly troubling.
Earlier posts about Our Bad Media
Attribution, quotation marks and links: They turn plagiarism into research
Thoughts on anonymity, identification, credibility and Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism accusers
Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism wasn’t ‘low-level;’ no one’s is
Bloggers call out CNN for double standard on Fareed Zakaria
Newsweek, Slate and Washington Post acknowledge Zakaria’s failure to attribute
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