A few journalists have been caught doing the naughty recently, and not the usual sort. First, internationally best-selling author Fareed Zakaria was suspended in August for having lifted a paragraph from a New Yorker article for a column in TIME. He was reinstated after a brief absence, after issuing a public apology. Now Margaret Wente, from the Globe and Mail, has been accused of almost exactly the same thing. Wente’s got more fight than Zakaria though, and rather than apologizing she set out defending herself, admitting only to some sloppy citations. Both of them have been castigated in the public eye for venal sins that sit somewhere in a journalistic grey zone.
Why grey? Plagiarism, the academics wax, is an extremely clear offense. But in the world of ideas, though accusations of plagiarism may not be misplaced, the cause and effect of written and spoken work can be tricky to assign. Most of us learn by metaphor, reproducing things we already know, with small, incremental innovations. The shockingly new is rare, and retrospectively usually less new than we believe at the time.
Edward Jay Epstein, for The Daily Beast, even argues Zakaria and Wente aren’t guilty of plagiarism at all. Plagiarism, after all, is an academic sin, not a legal crime, so there is no “letter of the law” but only the spirit of passing off someone’s work as your own.
Zakaria, Wente, and countless pundits are not original thinkers. They rarely, if ever, argue for ideas that are only their own. Wente freely admits her columns are inspired elsewhere, often summaries or responses to other people’s work. In her case, she borrowed an argument from Robert Paarlberg, recalling a column by Dan Gardner who did the same in the Ottawa Citizen. She cites Paarlberg. In Zakaria’s case, the citation in question was to Adam Winkler’s book Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. He cites Winkler, credits him as the source of the idea but, writes Epstein, “by not changing enough words, he provided the ‘gotcha’ bait for the feeding frenzy of bloggers out for his blood.”
The point is not to excuse Zakaria or Wente, or the countless others who simply haven’t had the celebrity and bad fortune to be scapegoated in this way. They did lazy work. That happens, but it doesn’t break the spirit of plagiarism, which is about passing off someone’s unique or original idea, not sentence structure, as your own. They should be urged to slow down and keep better notes, not flayed in courts of public opinion for their integrity.
The fact is, no one has that much originality or creativity. What Bruce Henderson for The Chronicle for Higher Education calls “consumatory scholarship” is the privilege of academia, and even academics aren’t highly original most of the time. Consumatory scholarship is the name Henderson gives to simply absorbing the huge range of work being done, pausing, and considering it. Journalists like Zakaria and Wente do this too, but at a blistering pace compared to academics. Unsurprisingly, their contributions are usually more summative than innovative. So-called plagiarism is more or less the rule.
And yet the work of the these journalists is important for those of us who won’t wade through the book lists, the journal articles, or the academic conferences. They are the translators and the popularisers. That work matters. To argue that because it’s not original it’s unimportant or dishonest is both naïve and ungrateful. God save the public intellectuals from a public that never knew any better anyway.