Joachim MacEbong: On Fareed Zakaria and the wages of lazy journalism

I have been a fan of Fareed for a long time, and his GPS show is one of the few I try not to miss, because of it’s informed view of global events and emphasis on balance and fact.

In the last two weeks, there have been two big examples of what can happen when journalists let their standards slip. The first was Jonah Lehrer, who had to resign from the New Yorker after admitting he used fictitious quotes from Bob Dylan for his book ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’. He has come under fire previously for re-using his old material, and even faced allegations of using Malcolm Gladwell’s work. The made-up Dylan quotes were the final straw, however, and the publication of his book has since been stopped. Lehrer, once hailed as a young genius with degrees in neuroscience and literature from Columbia and Oxford and a desire to use multiple disciplines to answer big questions, has to work hard to regain his credibility.

The second example concerns Fareed Zakaria, who anchors the Global Public Square on CNN, and writes for TIME, the Washington Post among others. It concerns an article on gun control which includes a very similar paragraph from an essay by Jill Lepore for the New Yorker in April. A complete timeline is here.

I have been a fan of Fareed for a long time, and his GPS show is one of the few I try not to miss, because of it’s informed view of global events and emphasis on balance and fact. His suspension by CNN and TIME leaves myself and many others distressed. However, there are some salient points that are worth looking into.

The nature of Fareed’s infraction suggests it was a mistake by a ghost writer or intern, which he failed to check before sending off. Ghost writers are used by in-demand media figures who may have to turn in an article on a tight deadline. The debate trailing this brings to the surface a deeper malaise, which Eric Garland captures in this piece. Evgeny Morozov also tweeted about a Harvard grad student telling him that Jill Lepore – who Fareed didn’t credit for her research – is in the habit of using the work of students without giving credit. It appears this is a fairly common practice, and these events must have made a lot more people sit up as regards the content of what they put into the public space. In the 21st century, there is no hiding place for plagiarism.

It shows the extent to which plagiarism is frowned on in the West, and the contrast between us and them is stark. Last year, then German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had his Ph.D thesis retracted on plagiarism allegations. He was rated as the most popular politician in Germany, and was even seen as a threat to Angela Merkel. The Chancellor stood by him, but he had to resign a few days later and was stripped of his Ph.D by the University  of Bayreuth. In contrast, little attention was paid to an allegation of plagiarism was levelled against the CBN governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi earlier this year by Ifeanyi Dike, a US based professor. Tolu Ogunlesi gives a good look at the issue here, as well as the Harvard definition of plagiarism:

“When you paraphrase, your task is to distill the source’s ideas in your own words. It’s not enough to change a few words here and there and leave the rest; instead, you must completely restate the ideas in the passage in your own words. If your own language is too close to the original, then you are plagiarizing, even if you do provide a citation.”

The next question is obvious: How many of the projects, theses and assignments submitted in Nigerian universities on a yearly basis will pass a plagiarism test? The ‘copy-and-paste’ nature of our educational system is well known, and it has spilled over into the blogosphere. News items and articles are re-posted without any attribution, or link back to the original site. It is an epidemic.

Another interesting aspect was the way Fareed took responsibility and apologized, without giving excuses and making things worse:

“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. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.”

If anything, the nature of that apology increases my respect for him. Eric Garland says he’s ‘one of the most insightful thinkers on geopolitics to grace the television and his work seems blessedly free of the ideological distortions of much of the foreign policy community in the United States’. Zakaria is the kind of rational voice that is crucial in these polarized times, and I hope he returns soon.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (4)

  1. @mbash…u should concentrate on sparing us the 'torture' of having to go through your 'mediocre' spelling ability…

  2. Its funny coming from ynaija

    You guys epitomise midoicre jornalism

    For example,I couldn't go through the toture of reading this 'article'..

  3. I am sorry friend but IT IS MORE LAZXY JOURNALISM TO WRITE AND USE LINKS upon LINKS upon LINKS to quote your story. It makes you look more like a wheel chair commentator and writer too.

  4. 🙂

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