Fareed Zakaria is found plagiarizing from Jill Lepore’s article in the New Yorker. He has apologized unconditionally for having let a passage from her writing slip into his piece for the Time Magazine and also into the recycled CNN blog post.
Zakaria did not try to advance excuses. Did not try to cover up. Did not try to defend himself. He just wrote up a simple and straight forward apology.
Zakaria needn’t have done what he had done. He was not so incompetent as to be unable to put Lepore’s idea into his own words and make it difficult for identification. If it were plagiarism, it could not have been so blatantly and almost in the same words.
That it happened the way it did calls for an examination of how and why it could have happened. And this examination need not necessarily be to exonerate him.
Anybody who is familiar with the serious business of writing, teaching and lecturing knows that these highly paid grandees depend a lot on research assistants and what they call ‘readers’. They not only depend on their help, but lean on them totally. Sometimes they hire sub-standard people to do this job. Maybe they get wide eyed, ambitious young people to do this research assistance either for free or for a pittance. These youngsters do the job in anticipation of a career progression.
Zakaria is as good or as bad as any of the grandees in the business. It is his misfortune that his lapse is discovered.
Whether he did it or his research assistants did it matters little at this stage. He is responsible for what is printed in his name. He can’t get away from it. To be fair to him, he did not try to.
But look at the way the ‘commentariat’ here in India and in the US responded to the episode. I am sure most of those who pounced on him are not foreign to the practice of research assistants writing major portions of their works. Nor are they unfamiliar to ghost writing for their benefactors sometime or the other.
Some of the Indian columnists described Zakaria as an ‘overpaid’ journalist.
American intellectual establishment vented it spleen. Its glee at Zakaria getting caught with his hand in the till is barely veiled. It could hardly conceal its jealousy of the celebrity status Fareed achieved in America.
Jim Sleeper’s article captures this ill-concealed glee very well. Writing in the Huffington Post, Sleeper quotes Paul Starobin who described Zakaria as one who’s busy collecting “his standard speaking fee of $75,000 for talks he gives at Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, ….” Sleeper also accuses Zakaria of being a “consummate player of the ‘Third World card against Westerners who dare to criticize his Davos neo-liberalism”. He thinks that Zakaria has the “bad habit of resorting to elitist, snarky put-downs of his critics.” He reminds his readers that Zakaria was judged by The New Republic as one of America’s “most over-rated thinkers”.
If you want to damn Zakaria for his plagiarism, by all means damn him for what he did. But for that do you have to talk about his cheques, his access to Presidents, his membership of the Yale’s Board of Trustees, his alleged self-importance and elitism?