I understand, of course, that Twitter is not mainly the province of the Sisters of Mercy, but, man, when a high-profile person does something stupid or self-destructive, the Twittersphere can be like a scene out of The Walking Dead. The latest person to have his guts torn out by zombies is Fareed Zakaria, of Time Magazine and CNN (though temporarily not of Time Magazine and CNN).
Fareed, as you know, plagiarized from a piece by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker (obviously it would have been more poetic if he had lifted passages from Jonah Lehrer, but these stories never work out that way.) Because Fareed is so successful; because he is so obviously ambitious (unlike others in our profession who do a slightly better job of masking their ambitions); and because plagiarism is such a sin in our profession, he has become a schadenfreude target. But I haven't joined in on the fun. I don't see Fareed falling into the same category as Jonah Lehrer or, God forbid, Stephen Glass. He made a terrible mistake rooted in arrogance and sloppiness, but I don't see why this mistake should be a life-destroying one.
The reason I bring this up at all is that I've gotten a lot of calls from reporters asking me about a previous Fareedian foible. Three years ago, Fareed lifted a couple of quotes from me for a column he wrote on Iran. Quote-stealing, for those of you lucky enough not to be journalists, occurs when a writer tries to pass off a quotation in a story as one he heard himself, or when a writer masks the provenance of a quote in order to create the impression that he himself he heard the quote. This is what I wrote on Goldblog at the time about Fareed's theft:
Zakaria's cover story today on Iran contains the following sentence: "In an interview last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Iranian regime as a 'messianic, apocalyptic cult.'"
In an interview with whom, exactly? Zakaria's wording makes it seem as if the interview was conducted by, oh, Fareed Zakaria, but as best as I can tell, the interview was conducted by yours truly, for The Atlantic. And not, by the way, "last week," but in March.
A few paragraphs later, Zakaria writes, "One of Netanyahu's advisers said of Iran, 'Think Amalek.'" Said it to whom? Again, yours truly, for a New York Times op-ed piece that did, indeed, run last week.
I never heard from Fareed after I posted this, and the column in which the purloined quotes appear has not been updated by Newsweek, at least of this morning. I dropped the issue, and since then I've seen Fareed a number of times (including on his show) and I didn't bring it up, and neither did he. A number of people have asked me why I didn't make a bigger deal of this, and my answer is: 1) I have a short attention span, and I move on quickly to the next outrage; 2) In my better moments, I try to be forgiving (I've had a lot of bad moments, of course); and 3) I never thought what he did rose the level of plagiarism. I know there are people who believe that quote-theft is actually a worse sin than copying a paragraph of someone else's prose, but it didn't seem that way to me.
I turned to a doctor of journalism, Jack Shafer, to have him parse the difference between quote-theft and out-and-out plagiarism. Quote-thievery, like plagiarism, is a crime against the reader, he told me. "Journalistic works come with an implied warrant that the words are original and reported by the writer, unless otherwise indicated," Jack said. "What Fareed did in your case was imply that Netanyahu said something to him, but this was inaccurate, and there's no way for the reader to track the provenance of the quote. The reader needs to know the chain of custody of the quote. Journalism has been vectoring toward standards of scholarship over the past 100 years. Quote-stealing, story-stealing, used to be okay, but now we demand higher-quality information, and one of the hallmarks of higher-quality information is provenance."
You will notice that Jack ducked the issue of which one is worse, quote-stealing or plagiarism. He did this, I think, because he believes both to be lousy. "I don't care that much about the poor little journalist who had his quotes lifted," he said. "If one of the members of the Davos Politburo did it, I'd be more irate, but if anybody is defrauded here, it's the reader."
I suppose the big difference between what Fareed did -- both in the case of The New Yorker, and my own -- and what Jonah Lehrer, and others like him, did is that Fareed didn't make anything up -- no magical quotes from Bob Dylan, no invented scenes. In other words, he paid little attention to journalistic norms, and he was sloppy and callous, but he wasn't a fabulist. That seems to me to be a big difference between his case and some of the more obvious examples of journalistic malfeasance.