Opinion

Three major publications have acknowledged plagiarism by Fareed Zakaria. Does CNN have no shame?

The network appears to be betting that the scandal will blow over

It's been nearly two months since we last took a look at the plagiarism scandal surrounding Fareed Zakaria, whose many ethical lapses have been chronicled by the pseudonymous bloggers @crushingbort and @blippoblappo. Since then, things have only gotten worse for Zakaria: seven of his Newsweek columns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), one Slate column, and four Washington Post columns (1, 2, 3, 4) have been affixed with editor's notes essentially admitting to acts of plagiarism.

Among Zakaria's current and former employers, that leaves only Time and CNN that have yet to respond to the latest charges. Zakaria doesn't even work at Time anymore, but the magazine has not released the results of a review that it announced back in August. (A representative at Time did not respond for a request for comment.) This column, for example, has no note recognizing the fact that it contains language swiped verbatim from a David Leonhardt story from The New York Times.

The Post will reportedly keep Zakaria on as a contributor. That doesn't speak well of the Post's standards, but at least the paper addressed the controversy and admitted some fault.

CNN, on the other hand, has been persistently ignoring or whitewashing the scandal. (CNN also did not respond to a request for comment.) The network brass have stonewalled others by handing out some variation of "CNN has complete confidence in Zakaria" over and over. They even fed that line to their own media critic Brian Stelter, host of CNN's Reliable Sources, who did a short segment on the story back in September:

It's an illuminating piece. While he did grudgingly admit that Zakaria might have borrowed a line or two without proper citation, Stelter did not discuss any of the specific allegations in detail, and did not even allude to the most damning case, in which Zakaria's script copied verbatim segments from a documentary. He noted that hosts of television shows often don't write the scripts, while acknowledging that Zakaria has failed to clear up the matter of authorship in any way, a conspicuous silence that includes declining to be a guest on Stelter's show. (Stelter also did not respond to a request for comment.)

Most egregiously, he kept dismissing the gravity of the charges, saying that Zakaria had merely "made some attribution mistakes — a small number, to be fair." But a simple attribution mistake can still fit squarely in the definition of plagiarism, which, according to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, "consists of using someone else’s words, phrases, sentences, or ideas without giving credit." In other words, what Zakaria's show did is still plagiarism, such as the time when Zakaria swiped the numbers from this Economist piece (spotted by Our Bad Media) — notable because they were out of date by the time he aired them. (Indeed, you could argue that this brand of plagiarism is worse, since it's harder to detect.)

After months of hounding, three top-shelf publications have at least admitted to some wrongdoing by Zakaria. But it appears a whitewash job is the best CNN can muster.

You have to wonder: Does the network have any shame left at all?

The situation is sadly ironic for CNN, for even if you take the latest controversy into account, Zakaria is probably the network's best host. I've watched his program many times, and it's generally head and shoulders above, say, the segments speculating whether the missing plane got sucked into a black hole or whether Ebola is the ISIS of biological agents.

But the longer CNN avoids an honest reckoning with this scandal, the more its reputation will be tarnished. Jon Stewart was on Zakaria's show last weekend promoting his new movie Rosewater, and towards the end Zakaria tried to get him to praise CNN's coverage. It didn't work.

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