Ever since Time columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria was suspended from his magazine and network for borrowing from another writer's work last week, journalists and others have been searching for more examples of plagiarism and quote-non-attribution, possibly because they can't trust his own employers to do it for them.
The most egregious and recent example of this is The Washington Post's Paul Farhi who reported Monday that Zakaria failed to attribute quotes when writing his book The Post American World. (We took note of the story yesterday.) Farhi's main claim, that Zakaria didn't cite quotes from Clyde V. Prestowitz's 2006 book, Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Power to The East, caught the attention of The Daily Beast's David Frum, who defended Zakaria, pointing out that Zakaria had in fact credited his source. This prompted an ugly, embarrassing correction sits atop Farhi's piece:
Correction: This article incorrectly states that in his 2008 book, “The Post-American World,” Fareed Zakaria failed to cite the source of a quotation taken from another book. In fact, Zakaria did credit the other work, by Clyde V. Prestowitz. Endnotes crediting Prestowitz were contained in hardcover and paperback editions of Zakaria’s book. The Post should have examined copies of the books and should not have published the article. We regret the error and apologize to Fareed Zakaria.
When the crux of your whole story turns out to be wrong, that has to burn. Journalists even have a name for this kind of correction: A "skinback," which Reuters David Cay Johnston memorably once described as "peeling back your skin and feeling the pain."
Farhi wasn't alone in searching for ways to pin another crime on Zakaria. The Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik didn't hesitate in pointing to a former intern who thinks Zakaria has borrowed from him. And Reason's Michael C. Moynihan (he of the Jonah Lehrer Imagine bust) noted a similarity between Zakaria's work and something Time had run in 1968. (This comes by way of Hot Air's Allahpundit.) Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of this scandal.
Frum, for one, is suggesting we put away the pitchforks before someone gets hurt. "People need to remember that a man's life and career are in the balance here," Frum told Politico's Dylan Byers. "One of the most important newspapers in America has charged one of the leading journalists in America of plagiarism. If you do that, you need to verify the facts -- all evidence points to the fact that they did not do that," added Frum.
Everyone knows how big Zakaria's career is. And we know how big the story would be if his career were to come crashing down. What we don't know--and why we're looking; why Farhi jumped the gun; why Zurawik's threw in that reference to a former intern--is if Time, CNN, and The Washington Post, perhaps even Newsweek, are going to really look closely enough at Zakaria's work. And more importantly we're wondering, will they tell us what they find? Look at Frum's choice of words: "all evidence points to the fact that [The Washington Post] did not do that." That's not very comforting.
Quite simply, we have reason to to trust organizations to do their job vetting contested works. Knowing that The Washington Post has already dropped the ball isn't going to help. And, frankly, news organizations aren't always consistent in their attention to these matters. As Poynter's Craig Silverman, who has tracked fabrication and plagiarism cases for more than seven years, explains: "I’ve found many news organizations don’t immediately investigate a writer’s previous work, and it’s often a struggle to get anything other than a prepared statement from them about the incident," he wrote. Further, "When they do investigate previous work, news organizations usually fail to follow up publicly about what they found." Time, CNN, and WaPo have all released varying versions of the same statement: That they'll be investigating but not detailing how far they're looking back or what method they'll be using. There's not a lot of transparency here.
Silverman points to Poynter colleague Mallary Jean Tenore's work, in which she tabulated and recapped all the different consequences of plagiarism and fabrication and notes that the basic gist being that there's no agreed upon standard for punishment. And what muddies this situation even more are instances like The New Yorker's David Remnick and his leniency toward Jonah Lehrer followed by Lehrer's second chance at Wired ("to date we have not come across anything that seems too troubling," a spokesman for the magazine said of Lehrer's work), or when The Huffington Post quietly scrubbing its association with Liane Membis. Why do some writers pay while others never do?
At this point no one, except for maybe Zakaria himself, knows if there are more mistakes, omissions, or borrowings to be found in his work. We may never know, but we just hope his employers would tell us what, if anything, they do find.