David Zurawik

Lame Fareed Zakaria defenses show confused, debased state of journalism

I thought I had said all I was going to say about Fareed Zakaria's plagiarism Friday night when I wrote about how wrong it was to steal the words and ideas of another -- and how deadly for a public intellectual.

Read here what I said about Zakaria's actions shredding any sense of intellectual authority I once thought he had.

But then, came the lame defenses from some other people in the media the last two days -- defenses that only underlined in my mind what I said about the deeply confused and debased state of journalism today.

I held my powder, however -- until I read David Frum, at the Daily Beast, tonight in a blog post titled "A False Charge Against Fareed Zakaria." Read it on

Here's the passage that makes me wonder if either Frum or Zakaria has ever done any real reporting -- like, say, sat outside a UAW labor negotiation with one of the Big Three car companies for 16 hours and then chased down a car company or union official who had tried to slip out a backdoor at 3 a.m. as the talks were breaking up. And got that quote while standing in the rain in an alley in downtown Detroit.

Here's part of what Frum wrote in an attempt to dismiss a complaint leveled three years ago by Jeffrey Goldberg, of the Atlantic, that Zakaria lifted a quote a quote from him:

(Note everything in boldface either came from Frum or Zakaria -- they are their words not mine.)

Here's Frum:

As for Jeffrey Goldberg's particular concern: It's an interesting question whether a journalist who quotes a statesman's words in a publicly available interview ought to specify who the interviewer was. In the Internet world, the question does not arise. A blogger types, "President X said …" and then links to the clip or the article from which come the president's words, in their full original context, all sourcing unmistakable. In print, where space is finite, it's a more delicate question how many lines to give over to citation. Fareed's reply to Goldberg, as quoted by Goldberg, seems reasonable enough.

And here's Frum in his Tuesday blog post quoting Zakaria's reply to Goldberg, which was sent to and published by Goldberg Tuesday:

I think it is quite untrue that it is standard journalistic practice to name the interviewer when quoting from an interview. Look through the New Yorker, the New York Times, or any other prestigious publication and you will see that most quotes from interviews do NOT mention the name of the interviewer. This is a subject close to my heart since I interview people every Sunday. On Monday, we get clips of the papers, magazines, and blogs that quote from these interviews. Most do not mention my name. Many do not even mention CNN. They simply say, "In an interview, "Mr. X said. . . "I wish they did but they don't."

It's not an "interesting" or "more delicate" question, as Frum says. It's as clear as rule as there ever was in journalism: You do not appropriate the work of another without crediting it. Period.

That is Media Ethics 101 as I teach it. And the notion of "finite" space precluding one from adding, something like, "as Jones told the AP," to credit it is ludicrous.

Somebody else got that quote, not you, and they might have had to make 10 calls to friends and associates of the person who gave them the quote to get that access. Or, they might have spent 20 or 30 years earning the respect of people on their beat so that they can get access to certain people for such quotes.

Who you can get on the phone at deadline to complete a story matters a great deal -- or, at least, it once did in the world of real daily journalism. And it is something that kept you employed and paid the mortgage -- and so, you behaved in such a way throughout your career so as to have credibility with the people you covered.

No, the quote I got is not yours to take because you have a blog or column on I think the editors and managers at showed they at least understood that when they took Zakaria's post down Friday, a humiliation no major news organization wants to endure.

But what's really astonishing is that Frum thinks it "reasonable enough"  for Zakaria to say, "I think it is quite untrue that it is standard journalistic practice to name the interviewer when quoting from an interview. Look through the New Yorker,  the New York Times, or any other prestigious publication and you will see that most quotes from interviews do NOT mention the name of the interviewer."

Of course, they don't because the reporters in the prestigious publications whose bylines are on the stories got most if not all of the quotes themselves -- that's part of the definition of being a "prestigious publication." They are not regularly using quotes that reporters at other publications got -- if they did, they would no longer be working at prestigious publications.

In more than 30 years, I have never worked at a daily newspaper that didn't insist I cite the source of quotes I didn't get myself. My god, the kids at the tiny campus paper I advise understand the basic rule that if you didn't get the quote yourself, you cite the source.

So, you tell me how someone allegedly as smart as Zakaria -- or Frum -- doesn't know that. The "prestigious publications don't name the interviewer" defense is astonishingly wrong.

Stop with the lame excuses: A researcher did it, and Zakaria just signed off on it; he left the attribution out because he didn't want to harm the flow of his writing; if it is plagiarism, it's the lowest form and not worthy of any significant punishment; it's a gray area; lots of people do it.

Yes, such theft happens all the time by low lifes on the Internet and at shabbier publications. So, what? That doesn't mean we should all behave as badly as them. Let's enrich the new technology with the kind of ethical and journalistic standards we can be proud of -- not the kind that force our employers to remove our work from the Internet when our deception is revealed.

It might not be convenient or pleasant to actually enforce real punishment against a member of the so-called media elite. But until we do, we will never start to regain the public's respect and trust.