When people make silly mistakes and take bad decisions, the results are sure to haunt them, but when these things happen to magazines like Time or news channels like CNN, they can have an impact and it can change the media history.
With the Time magazine and the CNN revoking the suspension of Fareed Zakaria, the noted Indian-American journalist, who was axed last week by both Time and CNN for alleged plagiarism, the question now arises whether plagiarism really is a vice or not.
If an “unintentional error” or “an isolated incident” can save Mr Zakaria, the same will surely set a precedent and this would affect the quality of journalism in the long term. It is really surprising why Time that has suspended him for a month a few days ago has all of a sudden revoked its decision.
Even if it is difficult to get to the bottom of the reasons for revoking the decision, this has raised serious questions of journalistic ethics. How possibly can a senior journalist be condoned even after it was established that he has lifted two paragraphs from historian Jill Lepore’s article on gun control published in the 23 April issue of The New Yorker?
Nobody doubts Zakaria’s “insightful mind and thoughtful voice” and I am not pulling him down from the popularity and reverence that he commands in the media world. The point is what stand should a publication take in case of plagiarism? Is plagiarism permissible to some extent? If Zakaria is let off in such a manner, if a news channel reinstates a person found copying from an already published article, then it only makes a mockery of media ethics and a journalist’s honesty and credibility.
Following a review of the allegations of plagiarism, for which Mr Zakaria had apologised, the CNN and Time in separate statements termed it as a “journalistic lapse” and an unintentional error, and announced that Zakaria’s popular column and the Sunday talk show would resume from August 26.
The Time said: “We have completed a thorough review of each of Fareed Zakaria’s columns for Time and we are entirely satisfied that the language in question in his recent column was an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized.”
“We look forward to having Fareed’s thoughtful and important voice back in the magazine with his next column in the issue that comes out on Sept 7,” it said.
A CNN statement said: “CNN has completed its internal review of Fareed Zakaria’s work for CNN, including a look back at his Sunday programs, documentaries, and CNN.comblogs. The process was rigorous. We found nothing that merited continuing the suspension.”
“Zakaria has apologised for a journalistic lapse. CNN and Zakaria will work together to strengthen further the procedures for his show and blog,” the CNN added.
“Fareed Zakaria’s quality journalism, insightful mind and thoughtful voice meaningfully contribute to the dialogue on global and political issues. His public affairs program GPS will return on Sunday, August 26 on CNN International,” it said.
According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to plagiarise is (a) to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own, (b) to use (another’s production) without crediting the source, (c) to commit literary theft or (d) to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source. In other words, plagiarism is an act of fraud.
According to US law, the expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property, and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions. Almost all forms of expression fall under copyright protection as long as they are recorded in some way (such as a book or a computer file).
If just a public apology is enough for a journalist or a writer to escape graver consequences, then the term “intellectual property” becomes meaningless.
It doesn’t come to me as a surprise if we recall how a 1997 BBC documentary expose of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots (1976), was banned by US television networks – especially PBS. Haley’s novel faced scandal over disclosures of historian Stephen Ambrose’s multiple incidents of plagiarism. Haley himself was forced to admit later that a large section of his book–including the plot, main character and scores of whole passages – was lifted from The African, a 1967 novel by white author Hal Courlander.