‘Terrible Mistake’?

08.13.12

Fareed Zakaria Didn’t Plagiarize!

Journalist Fareed Zakaria apologized for ‘the terrible mistake’ of lifting portions of another writer’s work about gun control. But wait, writes Edward Jay Epstein, he’s not guilty.

 Whatever other journalistic transgressions he may have committed in his April 20, column in Time titled "The Case for Gun Control," he did not commit plagiarism. Plagiarism, from the Latin word plagiaries, or  kidnapper, is an academic—and not legal—crime. It is defined in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own.” And to “use (another's production) without crediting the source.”

Yes, Zakaria used the idea of another person, Prof. Adam Winkler, that gun control has coexisted with gun rights since the birth of America. This idea is the core of his 2011 book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.

But no, by no stretch of the imagination did Zakaria pass Winkler’s idea off as his own. He fully credits him as the source of the idea, stating in his opening sentence: “Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. So he’s borrowing but not plagiarizing it from Winkler.

The issue arose on the Internet because Zakaria was not the only user of Winkler’s idea. In the New Yorker in April, Jill Lepore also used the same idea from Winkler that “firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start." She also credits him and his book as the ultimate source. So did others. According to my Google search of “Adam Winkler” and “regulation,” writers in scores of publications and blogs, often in very similar words, repeated this idea since October 2011. While all these writers credit Winkler’s book, as they should, none of them, including Lepore and Zakaria, cite any prior publication that also reported the idea. (If they had attempted to do so, their editors would have likely cut it out on the grounds that the actual source, Winkler, is provided.)

By not changing enough words, he provided the “gotcha” bait for the feeding frenzy of bloggers out for his blood.

Zakaria’s crime was not plagiarism. He embarrassed his employer, Time, by not sufficiently juggling the words around or employing the thesaurus to camouflage the sorry fact that instead of going to the ultimate source, the book Gunfight, he (or his assistants) used the electronic clip file. By not changing enough words, he provided the “gotcha” bait for the feeding frenzy of bloggers out for his blood. And for this embarrassment, he had to give an abject apology. But unless Time or CNN provide examples in which he took ideas from others that he did not credit to them, I submit that he is not guilty of plagiarism.