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Stanton Peele

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Fareed Zakaria's Unapologetic Apology: Par for the Course

Posted: 08/13/2012 12:32 pm

Here is the statement published on its website by Time magazine writer, Washington Post columnist, and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, concerning an article Zakaria wrote for the August 20 issue of the magazine about gun control, and the magazine's editorial reaction:

"Fareed Zakaria issued the following statement about this article: "Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 22nd issue of the New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers."

Time has since issued its own statement: 'Time accepts Fareed's apology, but what he did violates our own standards for our columnists, which is that their work must not only be factual but original; their views must not only be their own but their words as well. As a result, we are suspending Fareed's column for a month, pending further review.'"

My, that's a funny apology. It leads with Zakaria's acknowledgement of the "close similarities" between his article and Jill Lepore's. Are "close similarities" the same as passages stolen from another writer? Because, then, anything short of identical wording means the author was merely trying to disguise the theft. Is that what Zakaria did? Then he might have written, "I stole passages for my article on gun control from an article on that topic by Jill Lepore." Wouldn't that be the kind of direct expression writers at top magazines like Time are known for?

And, yes, "Media writers have pointed out" this theft. In other words, Zakaria didn't admit it on his own. That's the nature of thievery, isn't it? People don't generally come to police stations to turn in property they've stolen. And plagiarists don't generally tell people they have lifted others' writings without crediting the original authors. Zakaria then announces, dum-de-dum, those reporters "are right." Are right that there are close similarities? Close similarities are not a crime. Return to Zakaria's apology. The following sentence comprises his entire admission of what he did wrong: "Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my TIME column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 22nd issue of The New Yorker." I mean, that apologizing unreservedly is a nice flourish, but what's he apologizing for?

Zakaria says he is apologizing because "I made a terrible mistake." Is stealing a mistake? A mistake is when you claim that you accidentally lifted passages from someone else's work, as several well-known historians claim they have done, to wit:

"After the Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose stories broke earlier this year (2005), HNN received an email from a reader about a historian who had allegedly plagiarized parts of her dissertation at Columbia University some 30 years ago. The historian was Ann Lane, who currently is the director of the Studies in Women and Gender program at the University of Virginia. We investigated and discovered that questions had indeed been raised about Lane's dissertation a short time after she had received her degree, though no official body had ever concluded that she was guilty of plagiarism. The historian herself admitted inadvertently copying passages from others, but insisted it wasn't plagiarism."

Is that going to be Zakaria's claim? It seems that he may be setting himself up for this defense -- it happens all the time, people read something and mimic it, or else they inadvertently lift the passages and store them as notes, then just as inadvertently plunk them back down in their own article, dissertation, or book. "My, I really wrote something pretty clever there, perhaps while I was sleeping."

Here is an example of Zakaria's borrowing, published in the New York Times:

Mr. Zakaria:

"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.'"

Ms. Lepore:

"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.'"

What do you think? Not quite identical, but closely similar, to wit: "As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893" versus the original "As the governor of Texas explained in 1893." Maybe that's not really stealing, when you think about it -- that "(Texas!)" was a nice touch! Do you think Zakaria really believed that he read the book in question that he wrote about?

And, for those close similarities media reporters were right to have noticed between his and Ms. Lepore's work that Zakaria now belatedly acknowledges, he confesses that they were "a terrible mistake" and "a serious lapse" and that this lapse was "entirely my fault" (well, yes -- who else's?) for which he does now "apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers."

So, how does Time respond to Zakaria's strange, stilted, indefinite statement? "Time accepts Fareed's apology." Well, that should do it, don't you think? Although the way these things often work is that, once a writer like Jonah Lehrer is found out to be doing something sketchy (in his case repeating work he published one place in other places), then fully apologizes and promises never to repeat the slightly errant action ("It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong"), which his editor and publication fully accept ("It's not going to happen again"), it turns out that this first matter was only the tip of the iceberg. (The quotes in parentheses are taken from The New York Times article: "Lehrer Apologizes for Recycling Work, While New Yorker Says It Won't Happen Again.")

Oh, did I mention? No apologizer in history has ever voluntarily confessed to any other of his misdeeds. These subsequent mishaps are only pointed out by others -- you know, media reporters and the like. And the way you can tell this might happen? Because the miscreants never really admit to what they have done wrong in the first place.

 

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