Not a Remix–Nor a Sampling: Why Fareed Zakaria’s Plagiarism is Unacceptable

Image: Huffpost

By Eduardo Navas

Note: This entry was updated on August 19, 2012 with an extra commentary at the end of the main text.

As an educator in higher education and researcher specializing in remix culture and authorship, when I first learned about Zakaria’s admission to plagiarism, I was very disappointed in him, and thought that there was no way around it, that his admission of plagiarizing parts of Jill Lepore‘s work on gun control written for the New Yorker puts into question his intellectual integrity.

I thought that his apology was quick and to the point, but that somehow it was not enough. I thought that it was necessary for Zakaria to come forward and explain in as much detail as possible the reasoning for his behavior. And I thought that I wasn’t alone in hoping for this to happen–that if an actual explanation was delivered, it would all serve the constructive purpose of discussing the seriousness of plagiarism with students while providing a concrete example of a public intellectual who committed such an unacceptable act.

I thought that Zakaria should give an extensive explanation, first, simply because he owed it to his audience and readers, who have come to respect his work at CNN, Time and The Washington Post; and second because it would inform, and therefore become, admittedly, an unusual contribution to the debates on intellectual property during a period when younger generations are prone to plagiarize due to the easiness of copying and pasting.


It’s the second reason that consistently concerns educators, because, as it’s common knowledge, there is a certain loose approach to accept “borrowing” in our digital times. This is already evident in various comments left on The Huffpost and other sites such as The Atlantic Wire. Some responses suggested that what Zakaria did isn’t necessarily plagiarism, that there are only so many ways that something can be said. Or that he would be able to get back to things now that he has apologized. Well, the last comment proved to be right. Zakaria is back as he has been cleared by both Time and CNN, and he can get back to work. Really?

Let’s be clear. What Zakaria committed is plagiarism. End of story. And it’s inexcusable. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have apologized so quickly–though now, it appears that he did so, because he may have understood how things would pan out for him. This certainly appeared to be the case as it was eloquently pointed out by Eric Zuesse, just a few days after the whole incident became public. It is the machine of the ruling class that is at play in this case, and Zakaria did what he had to do immediately in order to keep the system that supports him afloat.

I believe that most people understand that major media figures, such as Zakaria, have research assistants that may do the actual writing. But admitting this, as Zuesse points out would be an admission to something that would shake the foundation of authorship for major media figures. But all this meandering around issues of authorship–of whether or not he wrote the actual article, as some speculators write, is irrelevant, because even if Zakaria were accepted as a type of “editor” he would still be held responsible for everything that happens under his supervision, and therefore he would have to resign–because he “did it.”

As we have learned by now, this is not what happened at all in Zakaria’s case. Instead, he received less than a slap on the wrist after he admitted to plagiarism and now he is able to get back to work as though nothing happened.

But something did happen. And we need to understand why it cannot be acceptable to blatantly take someone else’s intellectual work in our times even if this was the case during the early days of the media, as Paul Starr explains in his fine book, The Creation of the Media: a time when the newsletter (later to become the newspaper) in the United States, basically consisted of reporting verbatim news mostly from Europe.

During the early days of the newsletter, and later newspapers, repeating the information as it was previously printed without proper reference became common; this bears some similarity today with bloggers reblogging material from other blogs or news sources. The major difference between now and then is that rebloggers, at least those who are conscious of intellectual property and also their own integrity as contributors to our information infrastructure, will usually post part of an article with a proper link to the original source. This is equivalent to referencing citations in academic and research papers. In this way the information circulates in fair fashion.

Today it is necessary to cite the reference; to claim that someone else’s intellectual work is ours is outright wrong. Why? Because as we evolved as a culture we realized that a person’s intellectual work should be respected, and acknowledged properly. This understanding is crucial to intellectual production and its breach is irreparable. Once it happens the trust upon which the intellectual’s reputation is built over time is destroyed.

Let’s be clear, Zakaria’s integrity as an intellectual is destroyed. He can write all he wants and charge what he wants for his services and presentations, but I truly believe that any scholar, any serious researcher, any serious scientist who has real integrity will not be able to read Zakaria’s column on the Washington Post and not be suspect, nor wonder, or at least, not remember that the man who wrote such column compromised his integrity not only once but twice. This happened perhaps due to the constant demands of producing a lot of intellectual material on a short period of time–which is not an excuse. People with integrity will not be able to watch GPS on CNN and take seriously the arguments posed by Zakaria when interviewing experts on issues that are urgent to all of us in a time of global dire straits.

Zakaria’s situation needs to be framed in relation to a possible (though clearly not) intertextual reading. In terms of intertextuality, there are two ways that something becomes recycled. One is the act of material sampling, and the other is cultural citation.

Material sampling consists of taking parts of a source and repurposing it for one’s own interests. Remixes of music function this way. Much of the production of early hip-hop ran into this problem, and later on hip-hop producers were reprimanded for this–dearly, to the point that now it is very hard to sample unless you have deep pockets. Whether sampling music may be a legitimate act of creativity remains an unresolved polemic, which now is negotiated by paying high fees for music samples. Such payment then becomes a form of acknowledging the intellectual work of others. If this should change in the future or not is a major issue that fuels activists of remix culture, including myself. But aside from issues of monetary compensation, when one hears many early hip-hop records, it is clear that they attain certain autonomy.  More importantly, those who participated in this early music culture if not immediately,  eventually, learned that hip-hop recordings used samples from other music compositions.  So in this way, there was a certain fairness in the process of sampling as a creative act in terms of culture borrowing from its history to keep evolving. The point is that people knew that there was borrowing of material.

Cultural citation is much more difficult to trace because at times it may be an abstract idea, or a premise that may be recycled. If the way the idea is presented is different enough, then it is considered an independent and even innovative creation. Nevertheless, an intertextual influence may be undeniable under such circumstances. Intertextuality is commonly found in literature: Ulysses by James Joyce is said to “borrow” or be “inspired” in part by Homer’s Odyssey. Quentin Tarantino is often criticized for recreating scenes from movie classics with his own characters. Kill Bill is considered his “master thesis,” according to Kirby Ferguson. In both Joyce’s and Tarantino’s work their process of appropriation unfolds as one experiences it. Our engagement with their works makes evident that what we experience is not theirs, but borrowed. The intertextual process in these cases makes their works important contributions to our culture.

Zakaria’s accusation of plagiarism consists of lifting paragraphs from Lepore’s well-researched work to make it appear as his own. This falls under the paradigm of material sampling. Like a good remixer, Zakaria made a few changes, but some parts are left practically intact. Let’s take a look at the differences, as reproduced in the Huffpost and other news sources:


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.”


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.”

I need not comment more on the fact that Zakaria performed “selective” material sampling–similarly to how it takes place in music sampling. The fact is that had he taken the information–that is the sources–the research of Lepore and changed it enough, Zakaria would have been able to claim that he basically read the same material as the historian–and thereby, perhaps, crossing over more to the field of intertextuality; in this case, it would have been “ideas in the air” of people reading the same sources because they are in vogue in their intellectual circles. This is quite common as any scholar will tell you happens and is evident when attending conferences where the same theorists are repeatedly cited–often the very same passages, but for very different interpretations.

But Zakaria is not close to a cultural citation or any type of intertextual reading. The fact is that, no matter the details leading to the outcome, he claimed someone else’s intellectual property as his own by sampling pieces of specific writing . His act does not show an awareness of borrowing even implicitly as early hip-hop recordings did. And for this reason, as much as I wish things were different, Zakaria lost his integrity.

The most disconcerting outcome of all this is that Zakaria is merely suspended for a few days and now can get back to work. What does this gesture from major media conglomerates say about the integrity of journalism, and most importantly, how they value intellectual property? It means that we have reached a new low in media production. If a lawyer or a doctor did not live up to the code of conduct of their profession, if they breached it gravely, they would lose the right to practice. Why should a journalist be treated any different? This is a problematic statement being made by major media outlets to our future generation of intellectuals.


Updated on August 19, 2012 with the following addendum:

After a few days of having written an analysis of Zakaria’s admission to plagiarism, I find an update and clarification is necessary.

First, I should clarify that as direct and blunt my analysis may appear, the fact is that I presented an argument on Zakaria’s unfortunate situation–that admittedly was written with passion.  I stated that his reputation is destroyed.  I did not write such a statement as something I wish upon him, but as something that the social contract of writing and publishing prescribes onto anyone who decides to become an author or writer of some sort. Once that contract of trust is broken it is very hard to repair it.

The truth is that any person whose intellectual integrity is questioned for having committed an unacceptable act, will have to live with a recurring reference to such accusation even if it was “proven” to be otherwise.  In Zakaria’s case, he admitted to a one time situation, but he in fact has been accused by others of plagiarism. One was taken back, but the other still looms, though with much less attention, possibly because the media in general may want this whole thing to go away.

Zakaria will have to live with the fact that those who don’t like him will dissect every word he writes, to see if they find something with which to accuse him again.

On a more personal note (something I admittedly don’t share on my research, but I will in this case), I am disappointed at the whole situation for two reasons.

The first is because Zakaria has let me down as an audience member.  I looked forward to his program on Sundays. But now, even as I want to keep watching GPS, the cloud of plagiarism looms over him. I think many people who trusted him will probably feel this sentiment even if they keep tuning in every Sunday.  The fact is that the trust I had in him as a serious researcher is gone–even though I would like it to be restored. This is more like a relationship gone bad.  All one can do is move on to better things, and so, that is what I will do, move on and no longer follow Zakaria’s views on global politics.  I feel really bad about this, but like personal relationships gone bad, this one was breached.

The second thing that bothers me is evident at the end of my main text, which is more on how the media handled the whole situation.  The fact is that CNN and Time are holding on to Zakaria because he still has good overall ratings.  If he starts to fall off, which is what likely will happen after this unfortunate incident, they will drop him from their staff.  Major networks ultimately care about the bottom-line, and I’m not sure that Zakaria will be able to live up to their expectations any longer.

But the damage that the media conglomerates are doing to how we handle plagiarism as a culture is irreparable.  To treat the incident as lightly as they have speaks loud to how they view the hard work of individuals who spend time researching to write compelling arguments. At the end of my main text I sound like I would like Zakaria to be dismissed.  I really don’t have an easy answer for this, but the truth is that with time, he will likely be dismissed in any case because his ratings will unfortunately go down.

The conglomerates based on this realization should have dismissed him. It simply is the right thing to do. Zakaria more than certainly would successfully move on, and perhaps be back in the future in some way. But to come back now is not the right thing for anyone. What is certain is Zakaria will likely lose his appeal among people who do serious research.  But maybe this small group of intellectuals doesn’t matter to the corporations.   Nevertheless they do matter to anyone who wants critical acceptance for legitimation as an elite; especially because as much as those elites may be accused of “academism” they are the ones who educate the next generation of intellectuals, journalists and public figures. So, the media should not be dismissing those who have criticized Zakaria as “academics” or people who envy him.

I think Zakaria should slow down and take the time to do actual in-depth research.  If the plagiarist admission shows anything (and even if he is to survive it), is that because he is over-committed he is unable to own up to every word he writes.

My posting on Zakaria came from the heart–as a former avid viewer who as much as I would like, will no longer tune-in to GPS. My analysis was written with directness fueled by passion for the integrity of intellectual labor and with the preoccupation that future generations will not take seriously the importance of making proper reference to the hard work of others.

It’s a sad time for intellectual labor.


Another update: a piece on the Baltimore Sun by David Zurawik points to yet another journalist, Brian Byrnes, claiming that Zakaria lifted parts of his own reporting.