Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Case of Faheed Zakaria

The news from the States is full of stories about India-born Fareed Zakaria, an American journalist with Time and CNN who has been suspended in a plagiarism scandal. He has admitted to plagiarizing a number of paragraphs from a New Yorker article on gun control. His article, "The Case for Gun Control", is still online, as is of course the article by Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore, "Battleground America". CNN appears to have suspended him for similar plagiarism in a blog that has been taken offline.

I feel that this is a problem, to take stuff offline. I want to be able to examine the evidence for myself. My news feeder (Shameless plug for Highbeam) from the States led me to the Seattle Times' article "CNN's Zakaria sorry for plagiarism". There an example of the "plagiarism" is given, and I looked up, puzzled. This was statement of fact. The only text similarity was the name of the person quoted and the book quoted from.

I dug around for the articles and threw them at the comparison tool, SIM_TEXT, that we use on the VroniPlag Wiki.

Fareed Zakaria

Jill Lepore
Hmm. Wow. We have cases of plagiarism in Germany that have massively more copy and pasted that were found by their universities (BTU Cottbus and University of Heidelberg) to be only "technical weaknesses": Dd with 44 % of the pages affected: 2835 - 48 - 103; Nk with 75 % of the pages affected (many from her doctoral advisor): 17 - 66 - 81 - 90.

I am, of course, of the opinion that both universities listed above are in error and that these theses are grave plagiarisms, the doctoral titles should be rescinded.Fareed's sin is the selection of facts and quotes, that were lifted from the New Yorker. It is right to suspend him, give him some time to think about what he did here. I don't know about other texts that might contain similar material. But this is far, far less than the Jayson Blair case. But should he be fired? What do my readers think?

Update 2012-08-19: The Chicago Tribune reported on Aug. 16. that Zakaria has been reinstated both at Time and at CNN. I'm quite glad, as it would have been very difficult to explain large-scale copy and paste in Germany being okay, and a paraphrasing error in the US costing one their job.


  1. Fareed is a highly regarded journalist, and at times a lone voice of sanity in a sea of PR propaganda in the US. CNN has published this statement:

    I personally hope that he will do as much mea culpa as needed and return to his good work. I am stunned that he suffered from this lack of judgement. There was no need to sell this work as his own. Considering the circumstances, especially his TV prominence, he has more hurt than furthered his (progressive) cause.

    I think this may be a good example that plagiarism can happen to all of us. It is the repeat offenders that need to be called out prominently as they obviously suffer from a serious lack of ethics, which likely translates into their daily behavior. Insofar, Debora, your comparison to those "limps" (to use a good German proverb) as Fareed has both apologized and not yet been found to be a serial offender.

  2. The comparison I was trying to make was that here we have major text parallels being found okay, while Zakarias' small, weak paraphrase is being seen as a major offense. I don't, however, buy the "apologizing", or our students would always just apologize when caught. Apologizing is a major element for him to continue working, however. Another would be for the media he works for to insist on (re-)taking a course in journalism ethics. Thanks for the links!

    1. I agree with Gunnar. Accidental plagiarism can happen to all of us. It is the people who make a career out of stealing other people's words and ideas that pose threat to academic ethics. Fareed has done good work, and he was honest enough to apologize. No need to further demonize him. At least sections of American media have already come in defense of him. And god knows how man professors in Germany (in good standing now) would be found guilty if their vanity publications (books) are unearthed, scanned and checked for plagiarism and self-plagiarism. On that note, I am quite surprised why you are not covering the case of Ulrich Lichtenthaler.

    2. Anoynmous, indeed, I much prefer to get the career cheaters than an accidental one.

      I blogged about the Lichtenthaler case back in July: and have chosen just to add updates there instead of a new entry. Perhaps I should re-think that?