Shocker! Fareed Zakaria in plagiarism scandal

Anyone who takes on the 'gun lobby' in the US, which advocates the right to bear arms, must have a bullet-proof defence against the attacks that are bound to come from the right wing.

Indian-born media celebrity Fareed Zakaria, a powerful voice for liberal politics in the US, went into battle with a gaping hole in his armour, and for that grievous error of judgement, he has been clinically taken down by conservative media watchdog groups that fight gun control efforts.

Zakaria has been suspended from Time magazine, where he runs a column, and from CNN, where he hosts the popular Fareed Zakaria GPS show, after he admitted to plagiarising portions of a column he wrote recently advocating gun control.

The column (which you can read here) was written in the context of this week's shooting at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in which six Sikhs and the white supremacist shooter were killed. Citing data in respect of disproportionately large arms possession in the US, and statistics in respect of firearm killings in the US, Zakaria made an elaborate case for gun control.

The thud you hear is Fareed Zakaria falling off the media celebrity pedestal. Reuters

Conservative media groups, and the NRA, initially accused Zakaria of having played around with data in respect of gun possession and of having misrepresented a 1939 US Supreme Court ruling that he claimed impinged on Second Amendment rights (that is, the right to bear arms).  "Virtually every argument that (Zakaria) makes misrepresents the underlying data," wrote Robert VerBruggen in the National Review.

That may have been dismissed as polemical back-and-forth, but more diligent conservative media watchdogs soon uncovered something more problematic with Zakaria's column.

Newbusters.org, which claims it is committed to "exposing & combating liberal media bias", established (here) that a paragraph from Zakaria's column bore an uncanny resemblance to an earlier article in the New Yorker by Jill Lepore. (That article can be accessed here.)

The offending paragraph from Zakaria's column reads:

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the "mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man."

The passage from Lepore's article reads:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man."

The passages are, of course, eerily similar, and the fact that Zakaria did not cite Lepore as the source (a standard journalistic practice) is an egregious error that is unworthy of someone of his stature.

VerBruggen also cited (here) other passages in Zakaria's columns that bore uncanny resemblances to Lepore's article, with identical errors of mischaracterisations of judicial verdicts.

Calling him 'Xerox Zakaria', Newbusters.org cited yet more instances of alleged journalistic failings by the same author. The first (here) relates to a grouse from a writer at Atlantic magazine who claims that Zakaria cited his work, but did not give due attribution. The second, a somewhat less serious offence, relates to two convocation speeches that Zakaria gave - one at Duke University and the other at Harvard - that turned out to be identical. (More on that here.)

When journalists picked up on Newsbusters.org's expose on Zakaria's alleged plagiarism and sought responses from Time magazine's editors, they initially responded by saying that Time magazine "takes any accusation of plagiarism by any of our journalists very seriously, and we will carefully examine the facts before saying anything else on the matter."

Before long, Zakaria issued an apology. In a statement (also posted on the GPS site), Zakaria noted: "Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers."

Subsequently, Time magazine issued a statement that said it accepted Zakaria's apology, but was suspending his column for a month.

The statement read: "Time accepts Fareed's apology, but what he did violates our own standards for our columnists, which is that their work must not only be factual but original; their views must not only be their own but their words as well. As a result, we are suspending Fareed's column for a month, pending further review.

Soon after, CNN, on whose website Zakaria had written a smaller blog post that encapsulated the essence of his column in Time magazine, announced it was pulling the blog post and suspending Zakaria for the duration of a review.

A CNN statement said: "We have reviewed Fareed Zakaria’s Time column, for which he has apologized. He wrote a shorter blog post on CNN.com on the same issue which included similar unattributed excerpts. That blog post has been removed and CNN has suspended Fareed Zakaria while this matter is under review."

The episode has had conservative media watchdogs whooping with joy at having reeled in a "big fish" in the liberal media space. In all that chatter, Zakaria's underlying message - of the need for gun control in the US - has been drowned out.  And the discussion has veered around to a more sweeping dismissal of all the other liberal ideas that Zakaria championed.

It also shows up the risks of going into battle with the politically influential and well-funded gun lobby in the US with gaping holes in your armour. Zakaria's errors were fatal, but they could easily have been averted by the simple expedient of attributing to the original author the ideas on which he had manifestly leaned on to advance his argument. It just goes to show that even giants stumble at the lowest of hurdles.

Back home too, there have been instances when our big name editors  have been caught out on flagrant instances of plagiarism. India Today's editor-in-chief Aroon Purie blamed "jet lag" after a signed column  in his name was seen to have lifted entire passages from an article in Slate magazine (more here and here). And in an earlier time, VN Narayanan, the editor of the Hindustan Times, had to resign after it was established that he had ripped off a column from The Sunday Times Magazine (more on that here).

For Zakaria and others in his situation, the episode also holds one other sobering message.

The core message of the speeches that Zakaria made - at Duke and Harvard - related to ethics. “You don’t need an ethics course to know what you shouldn’t do,’’ Zakaria had told his student audiences.

In retrospect, Zakaria probably wishes he had abided by those words more faithfully.