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Can Fareed Zakaria Survive A Plagiarism Firestorm?

CNN presenter Fareed Zakaria has been hit by another wave of plagiarism accusations. Publications are adding warnings to his pieces, though his editors are standing by him.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

Fareed Rafiq Zakaria is perhaps America’s most celebrated public intellectual. Born 50 years ago to an elite Muslim family in Mumbai—his father was a prominent Indian politician, his mother the editor of India’s Sunday Times—he boasts a glittering resume that includes a Yale bachelor’s degree and a Harvard doctorate; the editorships of, and articles in, some of the nation’s more influential magazines and newspapers; three favorably-reviewed books on foreign policy; and a prestigious adjunct professorship at Columbia University.

Imperially slim and darkly handsome, possessed of an insinuating charm and a cultured manner of speech that recalls the British Raj, he’s a prized dinner guest in Upper East Side salons, and an occasional adviser on world affairs to President Obama.

If all that were not enough to assure his status at the top of ziggurat, he even hosts his own television show, Fareed Zakaria GPS, every Sunday on CNN.

So it must drive him to demented distraction, and prompt a primal scream at the planet’s cruel absurdities, that he has been taken down a peg or two by a pair of pathetically uncredentialed, no-account bloggers who go by the ridiculous Twitter handles @Blippoblappo and @Crushingbort.

Zakaria’s pseudonymous antagonists, who refuse to reveal their identities (and didn’t respond to a Twitter message from The Daily Beast), described themselves as non-journalists and “news junkies” during an email exchange that Newsweek magazine posted last Friday. They pursue their hobby—which recently exposed the rampant plagiarism of star Buzzfeed “viral politics” editor Benny Johnson and got him fired—on a blog called “Our Bad Media.”

“We’re not reporters,” @BlippoBlappo emailed Newsweek, “and we are not looking to use our posts on plagiarism as a means to land a job in the industry.”

@Crushingbort agreed. “I once did a hard-hitting story in the school paper on the poor quality of our drinking fountains, but no, I don’t consider myself a journalist by any means.”

As for why the duo has been attempting to add Zakaria’s scalp to Johnson’s, even deconstructing his CNN Teleprompter scripts for possible plagiarism, @Crushingbort explained: “Nobody else was doing it. It’s hard to convey the sense of disbelief in finding that several of the biggest and most respected news outlets in the country either lied about having reviewed Zakaria’s work or did it very, very poorly.” (It should be said that teleprompter scripts tend not to be written by the anchors themselves, unless the words being spoken are personal essays.)

Zakaria is a juicy target but has managed to stay employed, @Crushingbort added, because “[h]e’s one of the more prominent faces of conventional wisdom in politics and it’s clear from opening up the opinion section of The New York Times or The Washington Post that that kind of role comes with job security most people could only dream of.”

The duo’s exertions are finally bearing fruit. In recent days—due largely to the relentless, three-month inquisition of these two journalistic Javerts, who have dissected Zakaria’s oeuvre and accused him of multiple instances of plagiarism—various marquee media outlets where Zakaria has written have slapped dire warnings on his archived pieces.

This week, The Washington Post, where Zakaria has penned an op-ed column, and the online magazine Slate, where he once wrote about martinis, publicly criticized his professionalism and ethics. Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, previously one of Zakaria’s staunch defenders—he called the plagiarism charges “reckless” when Our Bad Media criticized several Zakaria columns three months ago—said the paper will likely slap warnings on five of his columns published before August 2012.

The offending columns—among six cited on Monday by @BlippoBlappo and @Crushingbort—“strike me as problematic in their absence of full attribution,” Hiatt told the Poynter Institute, adding that Zakaria’s lapses are “unfair to readers and to the original sources.”

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In an email to The Daily Beast, Hiatt explained his change of heart this way: “In the first batch of columns that were posted, I did not think the allegations concerning the [Washington Post] columns had merit. The anonymous posters put up six new allegations yesterday, and we looked at those and felt, on preliminary look, that five of them were problematic. We’re looking more carefully now, and where my preliminary view holds up, we will post messages, I hope within the next day or two.”

Meanwhile, the editors of Slate said Zakaria’s light-hearted February 1998 column about the martini “does not meet Slate’s editorial standards, having failed to properly attribute quotations and information drawn from Max Rudin’s history of the Martini, which appeared in American Heritage in 1997.”

Last Friday, Newsweek, where Zakaria had been the longtime editor of the weekly’s international edition prior to the newsmag’s now-defunct merger with The Daily Beast, identified seven articles, dating back to November 2001, that “borrow extensively [from other authors] without proper attribution” and do “not meet editorial standards.”

Zakaria—who is said by his defenders to be much-aggrieved by the recent pile-on, privately arguing that he’s the victim of vicious pedantry, and that his lapses are trivial and, at worst, journalistic misdemeanors of the sort that generally pass without notice at the country’s most respected publications—has declined to comment on the latest allegations. CNN, his principal employer, also refuses to address them, instead recycling a statement from August, when @Blippoblappo and @Crushingbort launched their initial attacks, affirming that the cable network “has the highest confidence in the excellence and integrity of Fareed Zakaria’s work.”

Zakaria continues to have prominent outside defenders, of course. Former Slate editor in chief Jacob Weisberg, who heads the group of online publications of which Slate is a member, says he disagrees with the decision to brand Zakaria a plagiarist, and takes issue with many of Our Bad Media’s admittedly small quibbles.

“I think the attacks on Fareed are distorted, irresponsible, and unfair,” Weisberg emailed. “As a journalist, I have been the victim of insufficient attribution, or no attribution at all, more times than I could possibly count. It annoys me every time it happens. But I don’t regard it as a matter for the ethics police, or go around accusing good journalists of plagiarism—unless there IS plagiarism, which I don’t think is the case here. It’s not that Fareed has never made a mistake as a writer—who among us has not? It’s that this is all minor, penny-ante stuff. Some of the accusations—like not footnoting scraps of television script—don’t even rise to that level. They’re ridiculous.”

Another defender, who has asked not to be identified because he lacked authorization to speak on the issue, pointed out that given Zakaria’s prodigious output—as many as 400 pieces in Newsweek alone—it’s significant that the magazine’s close scrutiny unearthed problems in only seven bylined stories. And one of Zakaria’s alleged plagiarism victims, Mideast scholar Fawaz Gerges, vehemently rejected Our Bad Media’s allegation that Zakaria misused his work unethically in a book covering the subjects of al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism.

“Over the last 13 years Mr. Zakaria and myself have often brainstormed about the jihadist phenomenon,” Gerges wrote in an email to Talking Points Memo. “We have talked at length about the drivers and motivation behind al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Time and again, he has highlighted my scholarship and I have never felt that he has short-changed me. I have given my consent to Mr. Zakaria to cite me. I did read his book a while back and I feel delighted that he has borrowed heavily from my work.”

Yet it hasn’t helped Zakaria’s case that he was forced to apologize and admit what he called “a terrible mistake” in August 2012—and was suspended for a week by both CNN and Time magazine, where he wrote a column—after allegations surfaced that a piece on gun control plagiarized from an article by New Yorker writer Jill Lepore. Both Time and CNN reinstated Zakaria after determining the slip-up was “an isolated incident.”

“In 2012, we conducted an extensive review of his original reporting for CNN, and beyond the initial incident for which he was suspended and apologized for, found nothing that violated our standards,” reads the cable network’s recycled statement. “In the years since we have found nothing that gives us cause for concern.”

Hiatt also says Zakaria will remain on his op-ed roster. “In August 2102, after similar problems with a Time column surfaced, Fareed vowed to be more careful,” the editor wrote in his email. “On that basis we continued to publish his work, and as these latest examples all predate that time, our intention is to continue doing so.”

Newsweek editor in chief James Impoco, for his part, said the magazine—which in September slapped a warning on Zakaria’s entire archive, and invited readers to contribute their own analyses, before concluding that only seven pieces contained “borrowing” problems—is finished with its examination.

“I think we’ve got closure on this, and I’m very satisfied with how our reporters examined this and came to their conclusions,” Impoco said. “Fareed is a lovely man, and an important part of Newsweek’s past. It’s not up to me to call a fatwa on him.”