Damn Zakaria by all means, But…

Fareed Zakaria is found plagiarizing from Jill Lepore’s article in the New Yorker. He has apologized unconditionally for having let a passage from her writing slip into his piece for the Time Magazine and also into the recycled CNN blog post.

Zakaria did not try to advance excuses. Did not try to cover up. Did not try to defend himself. He just wrote up a simple and straight forward apology.

Zakaria needn’t have done what he had done. He was not so incompetent as to be unable to put Lepore’s idea into his own words and make it difficult for identification. If it were plagiarism, it could not have been so blatantly and almost in the same words.

That it happened the way it did calls for an examination of how and why it could have happened. And this examination need not necessarily be to exonerate him.

Anybody who is familiar with the serious business of writing, teaching and lecturing knows that these highly paid grandees depend a lot on research assistants and what they call ‘readers’. They not only depend on their help, but lean on them totally. Sometimes they hire sub-standard people to do this job. Maybe they get wide eyed, ambitious young people to do this research assistance either for free or for a pittance. These youngsters do the job in anticipation of a career progression.

Zakaria is as good or as bad as any of the grandees in the business. It is his misfortune that his lapse is discovered.

Whether he did it or his research assistants did it matters little at this stage. He is responsible for what is printed in his name. He can’t get away from it. To be fair to him, he did not try to.

But look at the way the ‘commentariat’ here in India and in the US responded to the episode. I am sure most of those who pounced on him are not foreign to the practice of research assistants writing major portions of their works. Nor are they unfamiliar to ghost writing for their benefactors sometime or the other.

Some of the Indian columnists described Zakaria as an ‘overpaid’ journalist.

American intellectual establishment vented it spleen. Its glee at Zakaria getting caught with his hand in the till is barely veiled. It could hardly conceal its jealousy of the celebrity status Fareed achieved in America.

Jim Sleeper’s article captures this ill-concealed glee very well. Writing in the Huffington Post, Sleeper quotes Paul Starobin who described Zakaria as one who’s busy collecting “his standard speaking fee of $75,000 for talks he gives at Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, ….” Sleeper also accuses Zakaria of being a “consummate player of the ‘Third World card against Westerners who dare to criticize his Davos neo-liberalism”. He thinks that Zakaria has the “bad habit of resorting to elitist, snarky put-downs of his critics.” He reminds his readers that Zakaria was judged by The New Republic as one of America’s “most over-rated thinkers”.

If you want to damn Zakaria for his plagiarism, by all means damn him for what he did. But for that do you have to talk about his cheques, his access to Presidents, his membership of the Yale’s Board of Trustees, his alleged self-importance and elitism?

6 Responses to “Damn Zakaria by all means, But…”

  1. August 11, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    Dunno what he wrote.. But in my estimate 90.. no make it 95% of what goes as research work that I see is nothing but cut and paste jobs… with 4% being looking at things from the perspective of what result one wants and may be 1% serious research…… The problem in this information overload-driven world is to find that 1%……

  2. August 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    “If you want to damn Zakaria for his plagiarism, by all means damn him for what he did,” you write in response to what you call my “ill-concealed glee” at his current problem.

    But there is no glee here, and plagiarism is not the main concern of my post about Zakaria, nor is any personal dispute. My concern is Zakaria’s distortion of public discourse as an enforcer of a “Davos” view of the world that I consider both wrong and, in its own way, corrupt.

    Exactly one year ago, before there were any accusations of plagiarism, I posted this column. It explains my concern about Zakaria.

    http://www.jimsleeper.com/?p=708

    When the stars align well, Zakaria’s work contributes well to a broader view: He has presented good critiques of American immigration policy, for example, and he has been against war-mongering in many forms. These are “neo-liberal” positions with which I and many others agree. Beyond that, however, his material and manner go astray, in ways I sketched vividly long before any plagiarism was alleged:

    • August 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

      I am surprised that plagiarism was not your main concern in the article. It should have been, I guess. If it were not, then what could have prompted you to write a long piece on Zakaria at that point of time immediately following his suspension by Time and CNN, and what could have encouraged Huffington Post to publish it?
      I am not very much concerned about what you think of Zakaria as an ‘enforcer’ of Davos view of the world. You might very well understand that as not only wrong but also corrupt. I won’t quarrel with your opinion.
      I wonder if his pay cheques merited mention by you if your were points were limited to your quarrel with his ideology and world view and your concern with Zakaria’s attempts to distort public discourse. I thought mentions such as $75k cheques, ‘highly over-rated thinker’ were gratuitous.

      • August 24, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

        Dr. Parakala, I don’t really want to get between you & Mr. Sleeper. However you are probably ignoring the following:

        The caption “Fareed Zakaria’s Plagiarism: Even Worse Than It Looks” looks clear enough to me. I thought he was attacking Zakaria’s intellectual integrity (or lack of it).

        The timing is certainly right. If someone has just been caught on the wrong foot and I believe he is dishonest, I would grab the chance to make my point. (“Look, I was always against this self righteous over rated fat cat. Now the rest of the world agrees”)

        Plagiarism is a grave charge but still a subset of dishonesty. Claiming that Zakaria stole from Lepore because he is fundamentally dishonest is a tenable argument.

        A few other points:

        I don’t count “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” as admission of guilt.

        What kind of wimp will apologize in such cases without admitting guilt? Why does he use a euphemism like “mistake” or for crass unprofessionalism?

        Why do you soft pedal the matter by saying “slip into his piece”? You can criticize Sleeper as over reacting but do you need to go to the other extreme?

  3. August 22, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    Apart grom the fact that the “original” authors are pleased their “content” has been included, this is not much different from the much hyped SKC report!

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