Commentary

The Plague of Plagiarism

I promised myself I wasn’t going to gloat. One professional’s sorrows are no cause for celebration, especially when discussing an esteemed journalist like CNN and Time magazine star Fareed Zakaria, center of last week’s plagiarism cause célèbre. In fact, many of my MediaPost columns go to great lengths calming the public relations versus journalism debate, draining the back-and-forth venom. You know -- that whole Lincoln-inspired, “we’re not enemies but friends” mantra.

So if this article isn’t a gloat, let us label it a galvanizing call -- a call for both sides of the industry to aspire to the “better angels of our [collective] nature” and put an end to plagiarizing and falsification once and for all. 

Considering the almost absurd glut of easily accessible digital information produced on the order of some 2.5 quintillion bytes a day (according to IBM), one would think finding information or becoming inspired with new ways to mold, argue and utilize that data would be similarly limitless.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe the reason Zakaria is but one example of a long chain of related miscreants is that plagiarism today is as easy as hitting copy and paste. What’s more, in the crowded blogosphere and the 12 terabytes-a-day spewing Twitterverse, opinions -- professional or otherwise -- are about as rampant as Colorado wildfires were back in July. It’s so easy to get "keyboard happy."

This latest bout of plagiarism serves an important PR lesson -- and a reminder. Too often the "Us" versus "Them" internal communications industry debate is predicated on the false notion that journalists consistently maintain the moral high road or file their copy in a purely agenda-less vacuum. Not true. Journalists can be (and are) every bit as flawed -- tempted by the easy way out of lifting a sentence here, and "borrowing" an idea from there.

That doesn’t mean PR execs are factual saints -- far from it. After working my way up in the industry over the past 20 years, I’ve seen my fair share of beauties. But let us all put our collective journalist caps on for a moment and think about what exactly Zakaria did. The truth is Fareed’s failings aren’t as black-and-white as the copy-and-paste reference above either. Do you really think a Harvard-educated man could be so brazen? And stupid? Not likely.

Plagiarism isn’t always so cut and dried. Let’s remember that it isn’t as if Zakaria lifted verbatim the red-flag paragraph in question of his August, Time magazine column, The Case For Gun Control. There was at least an attempt at finesse -- of covering his tracks, so to speak -- and perhaps a subconscious nod toward rationalization. “How much tweaking and rewording must be done so that what springs forth from my keystrokes will be truly mine and not regurgitated drivel?” he may have well asked himself over and over. And if it were such an easy offense to avoid, it is very likely the topic would not occupy so much lecture time in grad school and undergraduate journalism classes.

Underscoring my point, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism lists the course “Legal and Ethical Issues” as number two in its roster of five core modules. The description:

“Through a rigorous examination of court cases and ethical controversies, students will learn to anticipate, recognize, and properly address ethical and legal concerns in journalism.”

Whether a class like this goes by formal title or if it comes in a weekly editorial and reporter meeting, you can be sure in newsrooms across America, in papers large and small, similar “rigorous examinations” are being discussed, debated and acted upon. So while Zakaria’s actions weren’t necessarily black-and-white, there clearly was a definitive right or wrong about the issue -- an admission that he was fast to recognize in his blunt apology.

And maybe that rapid-fire apology stemmed from his expectation -- one that is proving true -- that after the tumult settled, after the “fall-from-grace” explosion of 20/20 media hindsight, in the end the professional response would be a proverbial slap on the wrist. After announcing suspensions, both Time and CNN did just that when they quickly reinstated Zakaria.

But month-long suspensions and disciplinary review don’t cut it. If addressing legal and ethical issues are as central to the communications industry we all give lip service to, then the penalties for trampling on those lessons should be equally severe.

Have Time and CNN set a precedent for other journalists? Quite likely. Will plagiarism be going away anytime soon?  Not likely. And as for Zakaria, his mea culpa has been accepted by media and the masses and life will go on.

Some have argued that this is much ado about nothing, that writers and journalists are inspired by so many sources it becomes difficult to distinguish where our own ideas and original content intersect and blur with others. As a writer, I can understand this argument.

But inspiration and plagiarism are two different animals. In our age, and in our industries, where we are tasked with creating original, compelling and clever content at breakneck speed, we absolutely know this distinction -- we just don’t care to admit it.

 

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