In the Arena

The Zakaria Obsession

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Keith Bedford / Reuters

Journalist Fareed Zakaria speaks after accepting a Peabody award for the work done on his television news program "Fareed Zakaria GPS" during the 71st annual Peabody Awards ceremony in New York on May 21, 2012.

Schadenfreude makes my blood run cold, especially when practiced by journalists who have a tendency to get on their high horses about others of their ilk. Once upon a time, for about 15 minutes, I was set upon by the pack for writing an anonymous novel and then denying it, thereby adhering to the classic laws of anonymous novel-writing. (Henry Adams, Benjamin Disraeli, Jane Austin and a host of others adhered to those same rules, often writing “thinly veiled” roman-a-clefs). Now Fareed Zakaria is under the gun for plagiarism.

Fareed did something wrong, lifting a paragraph from the New Yorker (or relying on a research assistant who lifted it), for which he has apologized and has been punished with a one-month suspension. But now there’s been a less than admirable piling on by other journalists. Zakaria, it seems, appropriate quotes without attribution. He has defended this eloquently, saying that quotes from his Sunday CNN interviews are routinely appropriated without attribution. He has further said that if we want to create a new, stricter standard of quote attribution, he’ll happily abide by it. David Frum, admirably defends him here.

This is a murky area. All of us do it, especially with regard to the stuff we see politicians say on television. It grows progressively less murky as quotes from print interviews and, finally, books are involved–but I’m not sure why that’s so. It’s certainly annoying when you write or say something clever, and don’t receive credit for it–I’m pretty sure I’m the first to have used the locution “Bush the Elder,” which was a riff on the British Pitt Prime Ministers of the 18th century–but it’s also inevitable: memorable phrases quickly slip into common usage. It’s also annoying, as Jeff Goldberg points out, when an exclusive interview is appropriated without attribution. But Zakaria is right: this happens more often than any of us would like.

Fareed is also right that we may need a new, generally accepted standard for these things. If so, count me in. But what’s happening now is unfair. Blood is in the water and the sharks are circling. I think it would be best to put this in perspective: Zakaria has done an awful lot of original thinking in his career.  He is likely to do a lot more. Once again, the spectacle of the witch hunt is far more problematic than the severity of the misdemeanor.