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The last temptation of mooseheads

Last week your humble blogger attempted to clean up one Beltway pundit's sloppy command of the facts. Meanwhile, a much more prominent pundit made an even bigger mess:

Time Magazine columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria has apologized "unreservedly" to Jill Lepore for plagiarizing her work in The New Yorker.

"Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 22nd issue of The New Yorker. They are right," Zakaria said in a statement to The Atlantic Wire. "I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers."

Zakaria's column about gun laws for Time's August 20 issue includes a paragraph that is remarkably similar to one Jill Lepore wrote in April for a New Yorker article about the National Rifle Association. (The similarities were first flagged by NRANews.com and first reported by Tim Graham of the conservative watchdog group Newsbusters, who leveled the plagiarism charge.)

Time suspended Zakaria for a month, CNN suspended him from his GPS hosting duties pending further review, and the Washington Post is looking into his work there. Rodger Payne has a useful round up of the relevant links.

Once the news broke, there was a whole lotta Twitter speculation about how and why this happened. Many media types assume that this was a mistake made by one of Zakaria's flunkies/assistants/interns, but in some ways that's just the proximate cause. A better question would be: why would Fareed Zakaria outsource any writing under his name to others?

I used to think that doing this kind of thing required willful negligence on the part of a writer. Now my view has changed a bit. It's still negligence, but with only a fraction of Zakaria's writing obligations, I can see all too clearly how this happened.  To paraphrase Chris Rock, I'm not saying I approve... but I understand.  

The New York Times lists Zakaria's day jobs, and they're formidable: "Mr. Zakaria, 48, balances a demanding schedule, doing work for multiple media properties. He is a CNN host, an editor at large at Time, a Washington Post columnist and an author."

Most people who wind up in this situation don't just snap their fingers and take on all of these jobs at once. It's a slow accretion of opportunities that are hard to say no until you are overextended.  I'm not remotely close to being a member of the League of Extraordinary Pundits like Zakaria.  Still, even I've noticed that, as writing & speaking obligations pile up, corners get... well, let's say rounded rather than cut. 

I suspect, as one has more gobs of money tossed at them than they ever expected out of life approaches League status, three factors dramatically increases the likelihood of this kind of thing happening.  First, since the distribution of punditry assignments likely follows a power law distribution, superstars are asked to write a lot more, the pressure builds up.  Second, to compensate, the pundit has to hire a staff -- and most people who get into the writing/thinking business are lousy at managing subordinates and staff.  Third, if small shortcuts aren't caught the first time a writer uses them, they become crutches that pave the way for bigger shortcuts, which then become cheats. 

None of this is to excuse Zakaria for what he did.  It just makes me very sad.  I enjoyed his first book, and I've enjoyed Fareed Zakaria GPS because it's one of the few Sunday morning shows devoted to international affairs.  It didn't air this Sunday because of what happened.  

I hope the show goes on, with or without Zakaria.  And either way, I hope whoever hosts it learns from this mistake. 

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