I have been following with considerable interest the fallout of two interesting
cases of misconduct involving two high-profile writers/journalists in the United
States. They have raised quite an uproar with professionals from across the
spectrum. This discourse in an important one and is quite telling – primarily
because the methods used to cover news and put forth ideas in the media have
changed so much. Simply put, the standards have yet to catch up with the changes
in the industry, and this is not good news.
First though, I’d like to
briefly illustrate the two incidents. The first involves Fareed Zakaria, a
well-known host on CNN who also writes columns for Time magazine and The
Washington Post. Earlier this month, Zakaria wrote an article in Time,
which plagiarized three paragraphs from a New Yorker piece penned by a Harvard
professor. One of the paragraphs was copied almost word for word while the other
two were very similar.
To make a long story short, Zakaria admitted that
he made a mistake, apologized and was then suspended while CNN/Time
(i.e. Time/Warner which owns both) conducted an investigation. The main
purpose of the inquiry was to find out if this was a one-time incident or not.
After six days, he was reinstated.
The second case is that of Jonah
Lehrer, a famed author and columnist in his early 30s who has authored some
best-selling books on the connection between science and the human
His fame brought him more work at notable publications such as
Wired, The New Yorker, Washington Post
and others. Lehrer’s latest book,
Imagine: How Creativity Works
, was on the best-seller list when it was revealed
that he had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in its first chapter.
he was initially confronted with questions about the quotes, Lehrer lied about
it before eventually admitting his guilt. The book has now been pulled from
stores. Another thing that was uncovered – he plagiarized from himself by
regurgitating some of his previously published materials.
his position at the New Yorker
and it’s unclear as to which media outlets he’ll
be contributing to in the future.
These cases have been the subject of
dozens of articles by media analysts and professionals alike from around the
world. Despite the fact that these stories are about two Americans, they have
implications and lessons which should be discussed here in Israel as well. I
believe they exemplify the writing on the wall for a profession which used to be
considered an esteemed public service but has quickly gone downhill.
start off with, there is a serious problem in defining who a journalist is. This
was actually something that I debated quite a bit with a former colleague of
mine. The premise of the discussion was finding a common ground between the two
starting points on the definition; is a journalist anyone who disseminates
factual information to the public or someone who collects factual information to
deliver a unique story to the public? We never really came to an agreement but
did conclude that it’s somewhere in the gray area between the two. After all,
the majority of people working in the news industry are recounting facts found
on wire services like the Associated Press or other sources.
As far as I
know, the requirement to get a story run was for it to be confirmed from more
than one source. When there is confirmation, it’s rare that the names of the
sources are mentioned – so is that plagiarizing as well? That’s a tough one to
call, but one thing is for sure: everyone swipes. If a media outlet breaks a big
story others will take it, follow suit and hardly ever give credit where the
idea originated. Call it what you will.
Another problem is the
abundance of sources. With the Internet has come an explosion of sites, blogs
and webcasts, etc., all disseminating information. How many of the people who
write on the web feel at all beholden to journalistic standards or ethics? My
guess would be not too many.
I went to school to learn media as a
profession. I worked with veterans who taught me the ropes of the trade and
always had someone checking my work and asking questions. These things are
optional in the online world. This is a major issue when relying on Internet
sources. With social media sites growing in popularity, we’re getting pluralism
with a total lack of supervision, and that’s a problem.
I believe that,
on the whole, we should not stop people from posting anything on the Internet,
with the exception of malicious content.
But who will hold the sites and
their writers accountable if they lie or steal? It’s no secret that the Internet
has also decimated the news industry, in more ways than one.
income has plummeted and so have salaries. In a column I wrote a while ago, I
discussed how journalism as a profession is now in the bottom 10 career choices
in the United States.
Making a living as a reporter is not easy. More and
more freelance correspondents have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet which
sometimes means cutting corners and looking for “inspiration.”
me wrong, I am not trying to justify the actions of either Zakaria or Lehrer. If
anything, I do believe it’s a positive thing that the facts about their
misconduct were brought to light, but I don’t think that the public should have
any say over their future. In light of all of the changes which I have
mentioned, it’s clear to me that it must be up to their employers if they will
be kept on the payroll.
CNN and Time
have reached their conclusions based
on an internal inquiry and reinstated Zakaria. Nothing wrong with
He might have stolen facts, figures and language but they came to
the conclusion that it was an accident, as he claimed. If it happens again and
he is let off the hook, it will be up to the public to make that a decision
which is not financially viable.
Lehrer bore false witness. That seems to
have gotten him into more hot water than Zakaria despite the fact that no harm
has come by this falsehood, except for that to his reputation. As of now, it
doesn’t seem as if Lehrer will be out of work. Again, nothing wrong with that. I
have to admit, though, that I am very interested in seeing if his publisher will
reissue his book with a correction? Ultimately, it might be harder to get away
with plagiarizing and concocting facts thanks to the abundance of information
available to us on the Internet. The irony is that it’s that same access which
makes the likelihood even greater we’ll be seeing more of these
transgressions.The writer is an independent media consultant.