Fareed Zakaria and Why Some TV Plagiarists Get Punished More Than Others

Fareed Zakaria - In Prague - P - 2010
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"Some of these people fall into the too-big-to-fail category," says a veteran Washington journalist.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The warp speed and expanding reach of the 21st century media machine has minted a new breed of reporter-cum-brand: entrepreneurial journalists or academics whose work appears in print, online and on TV -- sometimes all at the same time. But with ubiquity comes pressure, and the recent plagiarism scandal involving CNN and Time magazine star Fareed Zakaria underscores a trend toward cutting corners, say media observers.

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"Modern technology, which can improve productivity, can also improve the expectations of how much work people can do," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "More work, more deadlines certainly is a pressure that can cause people to take shortcuts."

Zakaria lifted a passage from Jill Lepore's April 23 essay in The New Yorker on gun control and used it in his Time column published Aug. 6 and a CNN.com post that has since been removed. He endured a brief suspension while the Time Warner-owned outlets reviewed his work. On Aug. 16, CNN announced that he had passed an internal review and his show, Fareed Zakaria GPS, which regularly beats MSNBC in news' target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds, is set to return Aug. 26.

So will the ethics lapse actually damage his career? Observers point to a perceived difference between Zakaria's transgression and someone like Jonah Lehrer, who resigned in ignominy from The New Yorker in late July when it was revealed that he fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.

"It feels like there's such an important distinction between sloppiness and dishonesty," observes Melissa Harris-Perry, who hosts a weekend program on MSNBC and is an author and political science professor at Tulane University. "I don't think people weather dishonesty very well," she adds, citing former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who was found to have fabricated numerous reports in 2002 and 2003.

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Certainly others, including MSNBC contributor Mike Barnicle, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd have successfully weathered plagiarism accusations. All are gainfully employed by major media outlets. "Some of these people fall in the too-big-to-fail category because they attract ratings or readers," notes a veteran Washington journalist. "So media companies are willing to give them a pass for offenses that might lead to the firing of less experienced journalists. The key is for the transgressors to admit the mistake, apologize and move on."