Stealing or bearing false witness?

With social media sites growing in popularity, we’re getting pluralism with a total lack of supervision, and that’s a problem.

Fareed Zakaria 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Fareed Zakaria 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 condition.
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.
When 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.
He’s resigned 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.
To 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.
Media outlet 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.”
Don’t get 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 that.
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. [email protected]