Cut, paste, plagiarize

Everything on the Internet is stolen. So why does the Web delight so much in nailing a plagiarist in the MSM?

Published August 14, 2012 6:36PM (EDT)

Fareed Zakaria      (AP/Jason DeCrow)
Fareed Zakaria (AP/Jason DeCrow)

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Major media organizations had faith in Fareed Zakaria. CNN gave him 60 minutes each week --  several million dollars' worth of time -- to say whatever the hell he wanted, more or less. Time gave him a column, too, the one in which (as reported by conservative media blog NewsBusters) he reprinted barely changed paragraphs from Jill Lepore's New Yorker article on gun control, and for which offense he has now been suspended from both perches.

Zakaria had achieved this perch based on several decades of work, work that led his employers to think he could produce such work for them in the future, work that gave a basis for the faith they put in him. (It was a faith that discouraged them from running his copy through Google to see if anything similar popped up, which should perhaps just be an automatic feature on content management systems now.) Any number of universities, nonprofits and corporations trusted him, too, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, all these institutions trusted him even when problems surfaced earlier. He'd been previously caught lifting interview quotes without attribution and repeating commencement addresses.

This was the final straw in a long line of straws. But even with this latest offense he's still just on suspension for a month. That trust he'd built up may very well result in a return to the national media after a brief timeout.

The Web, where Zakaria's plagiarism was both discovered and publicized into an unignorable story, had no such faith in him. He'd earned both scorn from the right as an Obama supporter and from the left as a Friedmanian flat-worlder, and epitomized the slick, substance-free mainstream media. Even more than that, though, he just didn't seem to get the Internet. The Web trusts those who are transparent, informal, collaborative. Zakaria is endlessly formal and distanced, with a Twitter feed that's just the worst sort of P.R. nothingness and a blog that's almost entirely guest posts, lacking any kind of editorial voice and chilling any possibility of a commenter community. He seems to be deliberately sending the message that he regards the Web as a billboard, not a public square.

The plagiarism charges revealed at the very least that he was a lazy writer, most likely reliant on an army of uncredited assistants to construct his columns and then insufficiently careful in processing their work. It revealed the supposedly superior practices of the mainstream media as not noticeably different from the messy, chaotic process of blogging. Both were acts of massive collaboration and repurposing carefully covered up so the seams didn't show. When Zakaria's plagiarism was discovered, it was the rare moment when the Web's standards aligned with the mainstream media's, and he was out.

The problem is that those standards are far more often in conflict than they are in accord -- and as the media moves more and more online, this is an increasing problem. Back in April, Trevor Butterworth wrote a great piece about Elizabeth Flock, a young blogger for the Washington Post who committed essentially the same sins as Zakaria, rewriting two paragraphs of a Discovery Channel post without giving credit. But where the CNN anchor was merely suspended, Flock swiftly resigned. The problem, as Butterworth points out, is that, unlike Zakaria, her job was explicitly to take other people's stories and minimally transform them so they could appear on the Post's site, a practice known in the biz as "aggregation," and which was previously called "blogging." The mainstream media wants the Web's eyeballs, but it wants to stick to its old standards. The way you demonstrate your trustworthiness to a major media company (credentials, qualifications, professionalism) is almost diametrically opposed to how you demonstrate credibility online (transparency, reputation, accessibility).

The basic conflict here is that legacy media strictly forbids plagiarism, but, as Slacktory's Nick Douglas put it in a recent post, everything on the Internet gets stolen. Writing is copy-and-pasted without attribution onto new websites, pictures are reposted with any credits, and all the world's content is freely available. And that's not conceptualized as a problem; such theft is an inherent quality of the medium. Information wants to be free, and Web culture is remix culture. The Web is collaborative, anonymous, tolerant of failure as long as it gets corrected. Zakaria's copy-and-paste was a fireable offense, but the entire structure of the Web mediasphere was built on just such copy-and-pastes. Someone will call you on it if you don't give credit, but then you just revise the post and maybe print a correction and no one really cares too much. What matters, instead, is the faith you've built up online, which such a sin will damage but hardly kill, especially if you handle it right. The Web, and the generation who grew up with it, think about plagiarism very differently than do the keepers of journalistic ethics. Helene Hegemann, a 17-year-old German writer who was discovered to have lifted numerous passages of her debut novel from other sources without attribution, responded to these revelations not with an apology but with a shrug. Her argument is a neat encapsulation of the ethos of the networked author: "There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity."

This standard of acceptable theft is very real, widely agreed-upon and followed in a similar ways by lots of people across lots of websites. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's always good. The Internet was founded by a bunch of hippie libertarian nerds, and so we're stuck with their standards, which are sometimes revolutionary and good, and sometimes encourage a problematic lack of interest in journalistic ethics. Web media often eschews accuracy, wallows in blatant conflicts of interest, and fails to follow basic journalistic procedures. And that's all OK, mostly. The way journalists demonstrate credibility on the Web isn't better than how they do in legacy media. It's just almost entirely different.

For those journalists and institutions caught in the middle, that's a real problem. Traditional media want the production pace and low personnel costs of the Web, but with the attention to detail and care that you find in a print paper. It's very, very hard to do both, or at least to do both and still produce anything like quality journalism. The funny thing about Zakaria's suspension isn't that a major media figure would cut-and-paste someone else's work; it's that, if he had been someone like Andrew Sullivan, who has carefully (and admirably!) built up his credibility as an online figure, it never would've been that big of a deal. The Web called Zakaria out, and rightly so, for violating the basic tenets of his chosen professional realm. But he could just come over to the Web and do that all day every day and be basically fine as long as he posted pictures of his cat every once in a while. The old-school press wants to be the authoritative, distant voice of reason, and it keeps failing to live up to its own standards. Maybe it should come down here and play with the rest of us.

By Michael Barthel

Michael Barthel is a PhD candidate in the communication department at the University of Washington. He has written about pop music for the Awl, Idolator, and the Village Voice.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Fareed Zakaria Internet Culture Media Criticism Plagiarism