Musings on the Zakaria/Lehrer Plagiarism Scandals

Five mostly related comments about the recent scandals involving Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer:

1. Get Used to Nuanced Cases of Plagiarism. For every Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass there are dozens of Zakarias and Lehrers. That is to say, while the clear-cut, tisk-tisk cases of fabrication and stealing others’ work are fodder for films (Shattered Glass, anyone?), far more common are cases in which journalists make some cardinal errors but don’t completely blow up their careers. In Zakaria’s case, it seems as if he didn’t go far enough in citing the original source. Lehrer “self-plagiarized” and fabricated some quotes in a book. No one would put these two in the Glass/Blair category. Even as of this writing, there’s still some uncertainty about how to classify what Zakaria did or didn’t do. But these cases of nuanced plagiarism (or whatever you want to call them) are more representative of the common mistakes made by journalists in the present day.

2. The Hazards of Being a Multitasking Journalist. It’s hard not to see similarities in the two cases: Two prominent journalists with perhaps too much on their plates cutting corners or not checking their work properly getting busted. Lehrer was balancing Wired, the New Yorker, book writing and the lecture circuit, among other things; Zakaria has his magazine column, work for the Washington Post and his television show. This isn’t to excuse their sins or say that every journalist with a full plate is lifting passages or reusing his work. But there are only so many hours of the day, and room for sloppy journalism increases with this type of schedule. 

3. Superstars, They Do Fall. Several of the best reaction pieces on the Lehrer scandal have pointed out that our society tends to fall in love with the next big thing. This is true in sports, music…and journalism. No longer do reporters have to pay their dues for decades. Lehrer was quickly spotted as a superstar and was treated as one. This episode — and to a certain extent the Zakaria case (though he is much older) — again should teach us the lesson that we shouldn’t lionize the rising star.

4. Outing Sinning Journalists Has Become a Cottage Industry. We read interviews with the reporters who break these plagiarism stories and those who pile on to find further cases of indiscretion by the journalists in question. These journalists covering the scandals often say they feel bad about the disgraced reporters being fired. Maybe, but they sure get a lot of attention for their breaking news. Journalists self-policing each other is a positive in theory, but there’s a fine line between doing a public service and trying to benefit from others’ misfortunes. 

5. This is a Classic Teachable Moment. Journalism educators: As the school year begins, you have been handed two case studies that should be brought into the classroom. Teaching students about the perils of working in this cut-and-paste culture and the dangers of fabricating in an age when people can easily catch your lies online is an essential lesson.

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