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Sep 30 / King Kaufman

Some strange reactions to Fareed Zakaria plagiarism charges

Newsweek has posted an extraordinary note on the top of its author page for Fareed Zakaria, the global policy expert who has been accused of plagiarism on several occasions. It reads:

Fareed Zakaria worked for Newsweek when it was under previous ownership. Readers are advised that some of his articles have been the subject of complaints claiming that they contain material that should have been attributed to others. In addition, readers with information about articles by Mr. Zakaria that may purportedly lack proper attribution are asked to e-mail Newsweek at

Zakaria’s most recent Newsweek article was published in September 2010. IBT Media, the current owner, announced its acquisition of Newsweek from IAC/InterActive in August 2013.

It’s a nice use of the medium that Newsweek wants to crowdsource its plagiarism check, asking the audience to find any instances of Zakaria copying content from others without attributing it. On the other hand, it’s a little strange. Doesn’t it seem like Newsweek is saying, “We think there’s plagiarism in here, but it didn’t happen on our watch, so don’t blame us, and we’re not going to look for it. You can though!”?

And believe it or not, that’s not even the strangest Zakaria response this week. That honor goes to Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” who defended Zakaria on the show over the weekend. Referring to the anonymous bloggers at Our Bad Media, who have repeatedly pointed out Zakaria’s plagiarism, with clear citations and examples, for months, Stelter said:

It is clear to me that these anonymous people are waging a campaign against Zakaria, not just against his CNN work, but his columns and books, too. I believe that most of their claims about [Zakaria's CNN show] “GPS”—26 total—do not hold up under close scrutiny. The closer you look, the less it looks like capital-P plagiarism.

But when you zoom out, there’s a perception problem. The perception is that, as Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute told Politico, “It seems obvious that Fareed was overly reliant on his source material.”

McBride called some of the examples low-level plagiarism. Politico reporter Dylan Byers likened them to misdemeanors.

Stelter doesn’t ever go into detail about how the claims “do not hold up under close scrutiny.” He also doesn’t say why it’s “clear” to him that Our Bad Media are “waging a campaign against Zakaria,” as opposed to simply reporting what they’ve found, having looked into his work following earlier plagiarism charges. Judge for yourself if Our Bad Media’s findings are “low-level plagiarism,” whatever that is.

Journalist and journalism professor Steve Buttry argues: “Journalism has no such sin as low-level plagiarism.”

Responding to the idea that Zakaria, by fiddling with word order here and there, had maybe not done enough, but hadn’t committed the cardinal sin of plagiarizing because he didn’t copy passages exactly, Buttry writes, “The very act of rewriting stolen material makes a theft more sinister and deliberate than the stupid plagiarists who steal whole paragraphs, passages or stories verbatim.” He continues:

Zakaria was sneaky in his plagiarism. He rewrote his passages, changing a few words, fiddling with the order of facts and points but clearly—again and again—stealing the research and the conclusions and some of the words of other sources, but making it look a bit different. That works if you’re attributing and putting quotes around the words that come from the other source. But without attribution, it’s plagiarism.

Attribute everything. As Buttry has written elsewhere, “Linking is a matter of journalism ethics.” Here are Bleacher Report’s Attribution Guidelines.

Disclosure note: CNN, like Turner Sports, which owns Bleacher Report, is a Time-Warner company.