Friday, August 17, 2012

In Defense of Fareed Zakaria


Last year I wrote a foreword to a short book by Alex Grobman about the history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. "Oscar Wilde," I began, "once said that homosexuality is 'the love that dare not speak its name.' Today, anti-Semitism is the hate that dare not speak its name."
A few weeks ago, while going through my father's effects, I found an issue of Commentary from the 1980s with a cover story by Norman Podhoretz. The title: "The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name."
I had no conscious memory of the article at the time I wrote the foreword. But the turn of phrase had obviously planted itself in a corner of my brain where I had forgotten it wasn't my own. Anyway, sorry, Norman: It was an honest mistake. And it's still a great line.
Pundits who spend their days reading and reading and writing and writing will likely have made mistakes similar to mine. That's all the more reason to take additional precautions against every form of plagiarism, which can as easily happen inadvertently as it does deliberately. It's also a reason to apply strict standards of attribution, though these can vary widely across different publications and forms of media. Footnotes, for instance, do not work well on TV.
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Associated Press
Journalist Fareed Zakaria
Then again, I hope my anecdote shows there are degrees of plagiarism, only some of which (such as the recent case of science writer Jonah Lehrer) deserve to be treated as professional capital offenses. Which brings me to the case of Fareed Zakaria, the star pundit who writes columns for Time and the Washington Post, hosts an eponymous show on CNN, and has written a couple of bestselling books.
Last week Mr. Zakaria apologized "unreservedly" to New Yorker writer Jill Lepore after a blogger noticed that a paragraph in his Time column was all-but identical to something Ms. Lepore had written. Mr. Zakaria has now been given a month's suspension by his employers pending further review of his work.
We'll see if there are other shoes to drop. Among the more mystifying aspects of this story is that plagiarism in the age of Google is an offense hiding in plain sight, especially when the kind of people who read Mr. Zakaria's columns are the same kind of people who read the New Yorker. Why couldn't he have added the words, "As the New Yorker's Jill Lepore wrote . . ."? What could he possibly have been thinking?
My guess is he wasn't thinking. That's never a good thing, but it's something that might happen to an overcommitted journalist so constantly in the public eye that he forgets he's there. The proper response is the full apology he has already made, and maybe a reconsideration of whether the current dimensions of Fareed Zakaria Inc. are sustainable. Otherwise, end of story.
But that's not how Mr. Zakaria is being treated. To some of his critics, nothing less than the Prague Defenestration will do.
Here, for instance, is Jim Sleeper in the Huffington Post—a publication that earns much of its keep piggybacking on the work of others. "Zakaria is a trustee of Yale," notes Mr. Sleeper. "If the Yale Corporation were to apply to itself the standards it expects its faculty and students to meet, Zakaria would have to take a leave or resign."
Mr. Sleeper, a one-time tabloid columnist, goes on to impugn Mr. Zakaria for various offenses, such as dissing people Mr. Sleeper obviously likes and commanding speaking fees Mr. Sleeper seems to think are too high. If Mr. Sleeper has ever been offered $75,000 to deliver deep thoughts to a corporate board and turned the money down, it would be interesting to see the evidence. Otherwise, his is the most vulgar voice of envy.
Also gloating are the people who detest Mr. Zakaria for his views. In a recent column in Reason magazine, Ira Stoll—who often insinuates that this editorial page gets all its good ideas from him—more or less gives Mr. Zakaria a plagiarism pass, then lights into him for holding incorrect views on tax rates and the Middle East. Who knew that disagreeing with Ira Stoll was one of the world's greatest journalistic offenses?
I'm an occasional guest on Mr. Zakaria's show, for which I get no pay and not much glory. Mr. Zakaria and I have an amicable relationship but have never socialized. And my political views are considerably to the right of his, to say the least.
But I will give Mr. Zakaria this: He anchors one of the few shows that treats foreign policy seriously, that aims for an honest balance of views, and that doesn't treat its panelists as props for an egomaniacal host. He's also one of the few prominent liberals I know who's capable of treating an opposing point of view as something other than a slur on human decency.
In my book, that makes him a good man who's made a mistake. No similar compliment can be paid to the schadenfreude brigades now calling for his head.
Mr. Stephens writes Global View, the Journal's foreign-affairs column.
A version of this article appeared August 16, 2012, on page A9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: In Defense of Fareed Zakaria.
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