Are plagiarism and fabrication on the rise because we’re too info-hungry?

(c) drubig-photo - Fotolia.comWhen I first heard the news about Jonah Lehrer fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in his book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” I was shocked. Aside from the fact that I’ve really enjoyed reading his writing over the years, it takes serious balls to lie about Dylan, of all people.

But when I heard on Friday that Fareed Zakaria had admitted to plagiarizing sections of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker piece on gun control in his own column for Time, well, that was just completely befuddling. I mean, we’re talking about the former editor of Newsweek International, a current editor-at-large for Time, host of his own show on CNN, and a seemingly omnipresent columnist and pundit on international relations and foreign policy.

Looking at his resume, you might wonder “How does he do it?” Well, that’s precisely the problem. At some point, it’s physically impossible to keep up with the demands for more information in today’s 24-hour news cycle. Something has to give. In the case of tech blogger Om Malik, it was his health, and he suffered (but survived) a heart attack at the young age of 41. In the case of Fareed Zakaria, it was his reporting that took the hit, and you can see the full extent of his ‘lapse’ on the Atlantic Wire.

There’d been warning signs that Zakaria was over-extended — like when he basically gave the same graduation speech at Duke and Harvard. Still, copying yourself isn’t necessarily a moral quandary — it’s just really tacky. Chances are, things started to come to a head and Zakaria likely hired himself research or writing assistants to stay on top of the heap of assignments. Of course, that’s just speculation — though I’m not alone in my thinking. But when he says the incident “is entirely my fault,” he’s right. Whether the lapse was a result of his own reporting or failing to review someone else’s, it was sloppy work for someone of his caliber.

Now, before it sounds like I’m going too easy on Zakaria, I should point out that plagiarism makes me furious and I think it’s a fundamental sin of journalism. A few years ago, my writing partner and I poured our hearts (and a whole lot of time) into writing a piece for Little India magazine about Indian immigrants who are leaving the U.S. and returning home. We were shocked and angry when we learned that Mona Sarika had plagiarized us extensively in an online piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

But Zakaria isn’t right out of journalism school, nor is he a struggling journalist trying to make a name for himself. As the Dallas Morning News points out, Zakaria is widely-respected as a  first-rate thinker. I say “is” (not “was”) because despite some cries for all plagiarists’ heads on a platter, I believe he deserves a second chance. I’m surprised by my position (which I know is supported by at least one other group of editors), since I’m usually of the hard-nosed Jack Shafer school on this issue. But in this case, I can’t help but wonder if a.) there’s a  systemic problem that needs to be addressed, b.) degree of the offense and intention should matter (is this as bad as Jayson Blair?), and c.) maybe I’m a little biased, and would hate to see Zakaria — at long last, a smart Indian-American personality on TV — get fired.

To be sure, he hasn’t exactly done us any favors with this recent incident. And saying that the reason plagiarism’s on the rise is because journalists are too busy or we as an audience are too demanding is a total cop-out.There are hoards of skilled journalists out there who would happily share the burden but can’t seem to find work.

The good news is, we live in a world where there’s obviously still a demand for good ideas and information. The bad news is, as beat reporters fall by the wayside, it seems original reporting is getting replaced with linking off to what other people reported and calling it a day (ahem, HuffPo). And with editorial budgets getting slashed, having full-time fact-checkers (who might uncover some of these transgressions in their research) is becoming a luxury except for some of the most elite organizations.But that’s opening a can of worms, and I don’t expect anyone to have a simple solution to the business problems facing journalism.

At the root, this is a marketing problem — and by that, I mean Zakaria’s own desire to be the face of foreign policy news in the U.S., and the media’s desire to build up marketable personalities who can sell books and draw ratings. And for better or worse, the only real solution is personal responsibility. Call me crazy, but maybe having your own TV show and doing it with integrity is enough. Sure, you can take on the occasional side project (an article here, a book deal there) but what’s the point in biting off more than you can chew in the name of building your brand?

I hope to see work from Zakaria in the future, just much less of it. After all, when you’re trying to be Superman, you usually end up more like Icarus — burned and bruised from your nasty fall.

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