How Plagiarism Happens

When Fareed Zakaria was caught plagiarizing Jill Lepore, he offered the same defense that almost every person caught plagiarizing offers:


The mistake, he said, occurred when he confused the notes he had taken about Ms. Lepore's article -- he said he often writes his research in longhand -- with notes taken from ''Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,'' by Adam Winkler (W.W. Norton, 2011), a copy of which was on his desk at his CNN office.

This is a very old explanation for plagiarism, and one I have never found credible. When reputation rehab remains a possibility, no plagiarist ever says, "I stole it and got caught." There's always an unintentional mix-up. No one ever commits the actual sin of theft.

As Stephen Brill points out, this goes beyond Zakaria's treatment by his editors to how his plagiarism was actually covered. Here's Brill on the Times' coverage:

Zakaria's chief offense was in using as his own Lepore's description and analysis of what the Winkler book says. Even if the book was "on his desk," did he read it? Does he actually have any notes from his having read the book? Or did he confuse what the source of his notes was because he misremembered reading the book? And how could the notes from Lepore's New Yorker piece have been mistaken for notes taken from the Winkler book, if the notes refer to the book just the way Lepore does? 

Why would he think notes taken from a book would describe the book and its author? Did the Times reporter ask to see those notes, not just to understand what happened but also to verify that they exist? Did the Times reporter ask to interview Zakaria's editor or anyone else on the Time or CNN staffs? Did the reporter ask to interview the Time and CNN "investigators"? Someone should. 

These may seem like tough questions, but imagine the mainstream press's tough questions if a politician tried this kind of simple, trust-me explanation. Indeed, it's easy to imagine critics of the mainstream media charging that the "lesson" Zakaria says he learned is not too far afield from Newt Gingrich's explanation, mocked appropriately by the press, that he cheated on his wife because of all the pressures he was under trying to do good for his country.

Yes to all of this. I think what bugs about this is the basic power discrepancy. If a student in a journalism school plagiarized Jill Lepore, it is highly likely that student would be tossed from the program. What you see is something rather common in American life, wherein power allows for seemingly iron rules to turn to rubber.

More on Zakaria's past transgressions over at Goldblog.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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