Fall from grace is not caused by gravity

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Fareed Zakaria (Image courtesy: http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com)

I am, at my very best, a functionally cogent ape. And I am mostly not at my very best.

I am all too aware of one’s intellectual limitations as well as the fact that most of my knowledge is a form of hand-me-down. The only occasional burst of originality one claims comes in the form of one’s perspective on things or some one liners such as the one I have opened today’s blog with.

There is a purpose to this rather broad introduction. The suspension by Time and CNN of superstar columnist and host Fareed Zakaria for plagiarism is deserving of some observations about a malaise that is more common in journalism than often acknowledged.

First the bare facts. Zakaria, the 48-year-old host of CNN’s ‘Fareed Zakaria GPS’ and editor-at-large of Time magazine, has apologized for plagiarizing parts of a column about gun control in the August 20 issue of the magazine. (Yes, in the magazine world issue dates can be tricky). After it was reported that his column carried a near identical reproduction of a passage from a piece in The New Yorker written by the historian, Jill Lepore on April 23 this year.

Here is what Lepore wrote:

“As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

And here is what Zakaria wrote:

“Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

(In the interest of accuracy I have taken both these passages as reported by Christine Haughney of The New York Times)

Zakaria has been expeditious and concise in owning up and apologizing for the very obvious similarities. In a statement on his own show’s website he said, “Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column on gun control, which was also a topic of conversation on this blog, bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time and CNN, and to my readers and viewers everywhere.”

With those facts out of the way, it is time for my take on the controversy.

Fall from grace is not caused by gravity. It is caused by the gravity of one’s misconduct. How hard you fall from grace depends on the enormity of that misconduct as well as how high you have risen. For instance, if I ever fell from grace, and there is no guarantee that I would never do so, the thud would be barely audible because I am barely known.

It is not for me to second-guess what led to Zakaria to reproduce that passage from Lepore with only minor changes. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I will put it down in  the ‘Laziness’ column for now.

I do not have the means to establish for the purposes of this blog whether this is part of a larger pattern with Zakaria. It would be fair to assume not. However, there is one more instance of similar laziness that my fellow journalist Tejinder Singh cited via a piece here. Zakaria, it seems, had taken a couple of quotes from a piece about Israel by Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine in 2009 without attribution. That makes two.

Then there is the reported case of Zakaria giving similar commencement speeches. The Times’ ‘Media Decoder’ blog by Haughney yesterday said, “Earlier this year, Mr. Zakaria was criticized for giving a commencement speech at Harvard that was very similar to the one he had earlier given at Duke.”

Does that make three? I don’t know. What it does suggest is that a frightfully busy media superstar may have stretched his talents a bit. If you think I am shying away from handing down a denunciation, you are right. That’s because I just do not know enough to make the case worthy of a stentorian moral censure. And in any case I am nearly not presumptuous enough to be judgmental. All that I can say at this stage is that as Zakaria admits he made “a terrible mistake” as well as describes it as a “serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault.

At the risk of plagiarizing myself from my Facebook update yesterday, when the aura slips life seems quite pallid. Zakaria’s success in establishing himself as a compelling thinker has been unquestionable. Please note that I am merely acknowledging his “success in establishing himself as a compelling thinker” and not necessarily that he is one. He has been widely celebrated as a foreign policy whiz with a unique grip on complex global issues. In fact, Esquire magazine called him “the most influential foreign policy adviser of his generation.” He is a New York Times best-selling author who was once projected by some as a possible candidate as US Secretary of State for President Barack Obama. So there is an aura of a certain kind that has been frequently pegged above him.

Zakaria himself has not worked particularly hard on discouraging people from building a deeply flattering reputation. For instance, a 2009 profile in the New York Magazine by Marion Maneker was virtually orgasmic describing him thus: “Dimple-chinned, with expressive eyebrows and a thick head of black hair, Fareed Zakaria could easily be the Indian reincarnation of Cary Grant. Certainly his manner is just as silky and unflappable.” (virtually orgasmic etc. was taken from my own blog dated February 21, 2009).

Jon Stewart and Bill Maher never tire of exalting Zakaria’s intellectual standing every time he appears on their shows. Stewart, in particular, looks utterly star struck in Zakaria’s presence.

In short, the man has enjoyed an enormously flattering reputation so far. Hence my reference to how hard one falls from grace being dependent on the enormity of one’s misconduct as well as how high one has risen. And Zakaria has indeed risen very high.

Will this case have any impact on the future of colonizing Mars? Of course, not. Nor for that matter on the constantly shifting equilibrium in the universe. For me it serves the limited purpose a blog entry or two. So, so like that as the Dalai Lama likes to say.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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