FLASHBACK: NewsBusters Exposed Fareed Zakaria’s Plagiarism Scandal

August 12th, 2023 8:45 AM

NewsBusters isn’t limited to exposing the latest outrages from the so-called “news” media. Quite often, NewsBusters makes actual news itself. A great example happened 12 years ago this week, when Executive Editor Tim Graham followed up on a tip and busted CNN host Fareed Zakaria for plagiarism.

On August 10, 2012, Cam Edwards of NRANews.com alerted Graham that an anti-gun rights column Zakaria wrote for Time magazine had striking similarities to a piece by Jill Lepore published earlier that year in The New Yorker. Graham’s post put the key paragraphs side by side, showing that Zakaria had barely changed the wording from Lepore’s earlier piece. Within hours, both Time and CNN had suspended Zakaria, and Zakaria had issued an apology:

“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 22nd 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 to my readers.”

Politico’s Dylan Byers posted the reaction from Zakaria’s bosses at Time: “Time accepts Fareed’s apology, but what he did violates our own standards for our columnists, which is that their work must not only be factual but original; their views must not only be their own but their words as well. As a result, we are suspending Fareed’s column for a month, pending further review.”

A column Zakaria wrote for CNN.com on the same subject also contained unattributed material. “That blog post has been removed and CNN has suspended Fareed Zakaria while this matter is under review,” the company said in a statement.

Even liberal publications acknowledged NewsBusters as the first to break this scoop. The New York Times’s MediaDecoder blog reported: “The similarities in the texts were spotted by the conservative Web site NewsBusters, and quickly spread across the Internet after appearing on the media blog JimRomenesko.com.”

Politico’s Byers also credited us: “The plagiarism charge was first leveled by conservative media watchdog organization Newsbusters, which received the tip from NRANews.com.”

That Sunday (August 12), CNN’s Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz chastised his colleague: “Fareed Zakaria is a smart journalist who did a dumb thing, by his own admission. The Time magazine columnist acknowledged Friday that he plagiarized parts of an article by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker....Borrowing someone else’s words without credit is a cardinal journalistic sin, which is why Fareed Zakaria did one smart thing here, and that is quickly owning up to his mistake.”



Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik was even harsher: “Maybe I am a hopelessly out of date moralist, or maybe it is because I have taught media ethics for the last 20 years to college students, but I don’t care how smart someone is supposed to be, if they steal others’ ideas and words, they are dead to me as a source of intellectual or moral discourse.”

Zurawik’s column included a link to a Huffington Post article by Yale lecturer Jim Sleeper, who pointed out that “Zakaria is a trustee of Yale, which takes a very dim view of plagiarism and suspends or expels students who commit anything like what he has committed here.”

“If the Yale Corporation were to apply to itself the standards it expects its faculty and students to meet,” Sleeper wrote, “Zakaria would have to take a leave or resign.”

The next week, the Washington Post joined CNN and Time in placing Zakaria on leave pending a review. The Post’s Paul Farhi included that bit of news at the end of a 13-paragraph item about yet more questionable journalism from Zakaria: “Columnist and TV host Fareed Zakaria, who acknowledged plagiarizing parts of a magazine article last week, appears to have also published without attribution a passage from a 2005 book.”

But Zakaria, according to Farhi, wasn’t apologizing for this one: “Zakaria, in an interview Monday, defended the practice of not attributing quotes in a popular book. ‘As I write explicitly [in the book], this is not an academic work where everything has to be acknowledged and footnoted,’ he said. The book contains ‘hundreds’ of comments and quotes that aren’t attributed because doing so, in context, would ‘interrupt the flow for the reader,’ he said.”

There was also the case of The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. In May 2009, Goldberg called out Zakaria (then with Newsweek) for presenting quotes from Goldberg’s interviews with Israeli leaders as if they were conducted by Zakaria himself.

“The question is, How do I reciprocate this new friendship? By stealing his shit?” Goldberg sarcastically suggested on his Atlantic Online blog. “Maybe Goldblog readers could help: Are there any good quotes from Zakaria’s interviews with world leaders that I could lift for The Atlantic?”

As it turned out, Time’s one-month suspension of its columnist lasted less than a week. The magazine e-mailed a statement to NewsBusters a mere six days after the initial story broke: “We have completed a thorough review of each of Fareed Zakaria’s columns for Time, and we are entirely satisfied that the language in question in his recent column was an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized. We look forward to having Fareed’s thoughtful and important voice back in the magazine with his next column in the issue that comes out on Sept. 7.”

Time’s dismissal of the incident as “unintentional” didn’t even match Zakaria’s own version of the story, Graham noted in his August 16 blog:  “It suggests Time is soft on plagiarism, and shouldn’t try to lecture anyone else about journalistic ethics in the near future.”

That same day, CNN also ended their host’s suspension. “CNN has completed its internal review of Fareed Zakaria’s work for CNN, including a look back at his Sunday programs, documentaries, and CNN.com blogs. The process was rigorous. We found nothing that merited continuing the suspension.”

Yet at least according to Newsweek, Zakaria might have paid a hefty price for his misdeeds. Writing in the August 27 edition (which would have been produced just a few days after the initial news broke), Newsweek International editor Tunku Varadarajan revealed that Zakaria (who had Varadarajan’s job before moving to Time) “was in favorable consideration by Team Obama for the post of national security adviser. That will not, now, happen” because Zakaria’s “reputation was tarred” by the scandal.

Would Obama have actually put Zakaria in the Cabinet? With the 2012 election just months away, the reference was presumably about who would staff the White House during a second term. As we now know, Obama’s first term U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice took over as national security advisor in 2013, after her post-Benghazi lies made it impossible for her to win Senate confirmation for the job Obama really wanted for her, Secretary of State.

But Varadarajan, writing before the Benghazi attack took place, presumed his friend might actually have gotten the prestigious job, and he was furious on Zakaria’s behalf: “In the past few days, as one observed his confreres in the American media slobber and snarl for his blood after an act of plagiarism so trivial that one had to marvel at the disproportion between the journalistic lapse and the cyclonic castigation, one was tempted to ask this question, in echo of his first resounding shot: ‘Why Do They Hate Fareed?’”

Varadarajan’s Newsweek article no longer appears at the link, but Graham helpfully posted long excerpts on NewsBusters. Although Varadarajan wore the title of editor, his piece doesn’t read as if it was written by someone who expects, and demands, excellence from other journalists, but rather someone who resents and detests criticism:

“Media reporters of the kind who hounded Zakaria occupy the lowest rung and exult at the prospect of pulling people down....So he cribbed a little: he read a lot; took notes; things got jumbled. Is that worth a man’s career? I think not, and to his credit he thought not too. One admires him for fighting back, especially as those who called for his head were so pious, and yet so inhumane.”

Journalists, of course, spend their careers criticizing politicians and others in the public sphere, believing it’s a way to enlighten the public and improve the quality of the institutions they cover. It’s too bad many of those same journalists don’t believe that their own profession can handle criticism when the malfeasance is obvious.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.