The world of punditry, journalism, and all civilisation that is good and decent erupted on August 10 with the news that writer and commentator Fareed Zakaria plagiarised from the New Yorker in an article about gun control and the Second Amendment. This led to his being suspended from Time for a month and indefinitely from CNN. It caused shockwaves in India, where the “Big Brown Hope in International Journalism” as Shobha De called him was outed as a “common garden variety plagiarist and chor (thief)”. And it caused much merriment amongst Zakaria’s detractors and confusion amongst his fans. How could someone so high up in the establishment of media break the number-one rule of writing — always credit your sources — with such thoughtlessness, such impunity? Was it arrogance or carelessness? And why does it matter?
When I taught writing at university, I spent a three-hour session every semester on plagiarism, explaining what it was and how to avoid it to my students. I warned them not to do it because I would catch them, and the consequences, as per university policy, would be severe. I even held a university-wide seminar on the subject which was recorded on DVD — all students are made to watch it as part of their orientation.
My reputation is well deserved: I caught a third of my first class plagiarising their final papers and failed them for the entire semester. My department head mediated between me and these students, who begged me to reconsider, but I stuck to my decision and they were forced to repeat the class the following year. Later I heard from different sources that my students were grudgingly grateful; they learned a hard lesson that doing the work properly and honestly is far more honourable than cheating, stealing, and lying about it.
You might ask how I was so confident that I could catch plagiarists in my class. Did I use “plagiarism software” to help identify offending passages? No, that’s not it. (Many of my students said, when accused of plagiarism, that they ran their papers through this magic software since it didn’t tell them they were doing anything wrong.)
All I had to do was read their papers. You see, each person has their own particular style of writing — their tone, voice, grasp of grammar and sentence construction, and so on. The moment I came across a sentence or paragraph that didn’t match this style, I became suspicious. Pakistani students are notorious for plagiarism, but they’re clumsy at it. For example, they will write a paper on religious faith in Pakistan but lift a paragraph from an online source on faith in America without changing the references to churches and synagogues, of which we have very few in Pakistan. You don’t need fancy software to verify this: you simply type in a few words of the offending sentence or paragraph into an online search engine and it will return the very website from which the sentence comes, nearly word for word.
In my eyes, plagiarism is probably the worst crime a writer can commit. Writing is hard work; coming up with original ideas and the words with which to express them is even harder. It’s a writer’s entire life; it’s how writers establish their careers, earn their credibility, and make money to live. When you plagiarise someone else’s writing and take the credit for their work, you steal from them and you metaphorically deserve to have your hand chopped off. And for those of you who think this doesn’t matter as much in journalism as it does in academia, you’re wrong. It matters everywhere, because rules and principles don’t change across mediums.
Fareed Zakaria should be dismissed from all his positions at all media outlets, as well as his trusteeship at Yale University. This punishment would send the strong message that plagiarism isn’t a joke or an easy crime to get away with just because you were too lazy to cite your sources or because you think nobody’s really reading your work carefully. It would reiterate the fact that plagiarism is the theft of intellectual property, which in international courts is a legal crime. And it would serve as the ultimate cautionary tale for anyone who works with words how easy it is to go from pundit to bandit with just a few careless clicks of the mouse.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2012.