What Academics Can Teach Fareed Zakaria

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Another week, another scandal featuring a famous writer. This time, it’s Time magazine columnist Fareed Zakaria, who has acknowledged lifting—virtually verbatim—parts of a New Yorker magazine article for one of his own pieces.

Now comes word that, in one of his own books, he included without attribution a passage from a book written by Clyde Prestowitz, and published three years earlier.

At the risk of plagiarizing myself, it’s worth noting that I had a non-encounter with Zakaria quite similar to the one I had with the disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer.

Like Lehrer, Zakaria was coming to Pacific Standard’s home of Santa Barbara to give a lecture, and I asked weeks ahead of time if he could do an advance interview. He replied that he was far too busy, adding that his secretary would kill him if he added anything more to his schedule.

Given his frantic pace, and the cutting of corners that such a pace invites, I’m starting to suspect he sacked that secretary.

Perhaps most troubling, to me at least, is a comment he gave Monday to the Washington Post (which has suspended his column for a month). Defending his 2008 book The Post-American World, he told media reporter Paul Fahri: “This is not an academic work where everything has to be acknowledged and footnoted.”

What he doesn’t seem to understand is, in journalism as in government, transparency is a plus. We have a strict policy at Pacific Standard of acknowledging our sources. On web pieces, we routinely link to papers we’ve quoted from.

This gives skeptical readers who suspect we’re taking some passage out of context the chance to look at the original for themselves and make up their own minds. (Frank Rich was the first to do this at The New York Times, and he has continued the practice with his New York magazine pieces.)

Zakaria is a brilliant thinker and analyst, but he doesn’t seem to realize that there’s nothing to lose, and much to gain, by acknowledging the many sources that inevitably inform a thoughtful piece of journalism. Academic researchers routinely build on each other’s work, and give credit where it’s due. This seems like a good model for journalists as well.