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. 

Daniel W. Drezner

An open letter to Fred Hiatt

Dear Mr. Hiatt (and Mr. Pexton),

Sorry to be writing to you in such a public format.  I'm also sorry to bring up the rather touchy subject of your attempts to find a competent and authentically conservative blogger for the Post.  But can we talk about Jennifer Rubin for a second? 

As I blogged yesterday, Rubin demonstrated incompetence, laziness and/or mendacity in her "hackstabbing" of Robert Zoellick.  In particular, she seemed unable to understand the meaning of the "responsible stakeholder" language that Zoellick started using in 2005, and her weblink to that language wasn't even close to accurate. 

Today I wake up to see that she has offered a follow-up post on Zoellick and an update to the controversial post from yesterday.  Let me just reprint that update in full. 

UPDATE: To clarify, Zoellick in 2005 delivered a speech in which he encouraged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. From 2005 to the present in speeches, articles and interviews (asked in 2009 in Financial Times interview about China’s “scorecard” on acting as a responsible stakeholder he said “I think China has come a long way”), Zoellick repeatedly praised China’s conduct, despite ample signs China was anything but “responsible” and widespread criticism of the policy Zoellick had championed. Given Mitt Romney’s “take China to the WTO” stance and his unsparing criticism of China’s human rights abuses Romney could not be more different in his view of China.

Now this is a bit of an improvement.  Rubin has accurately described what Zoellick was saying in 2005 (as opposed to how it still appears in  her original post).  She also suggests that that Zoellick rubs some neoconservatives/China hardliners the wrong way on positions like human rights abuses.  That's a genuine policy disagreement. 

Still, there are some issues.  One problem is that even in the update, she's still screwing up her evidence.   Her quote from the FT interview of Zoellick is a somewhat out of context -- it seems more like Zoellick was talking about China's economic development in that particular phrase:

Zoellick:  I think China has come a very long long way. I have a special perspective because I was living in Hong Kong in 1980. I went to Guangdong province right after Deng Xiaoping started the reform process. All you have to do is compare the China of that era and the China of today. It’s so startling. 

As for her embedded links:  Rubin's URLs for the "widespread criticism" portion go to two different articles.  The first one is accurate, but, alas, Rubin only bats .500.  The "criticism" link goes to a paper by Jonathan Czin entitled "Dragon Slayer or Panda Hugger?  Chinese Perspectives on 'Responsible Stakeholder' Diplomacy."   Here's Czin's conclusion: 

Zoellick attempted to move U.S. thinking beyond the wholly inadequate dichotomous roles of friend and enemy to define the grey conceptual space that China occupies. To say that China is neither a friend nor an enemy of the United States is not only a truism; it has also become a cliché.  Neither China nor the United States wants to see China become part of a “hub and spokes” alliance system in East Asia. Yet the claim put forth by strategic thinkers such as John Mearsheimer that the changing material balance of power will inexorably and inevitably lead to Sino-American conflict is over-deterministic and threatens to engender a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, it runs counter to the premise of U.S. China policy since Kissinger. Strategically, Zoellick’s “Third Way” offers the most reasonable and palatable option.

I do not think they anyone would characterize this as "criticism" of Zoellick's policy formulation.  I read through the whole article, and couldn't really find any criticism of the policy.  Between you, me and the lamppost, I suspect Rubin saw the "panda-hugger" headline and just put it in.  But I concede that's pure speculation on my part. 

Look, this is tedious stuff, and I don't like descending into the weeds all that much.  Still, if Rubin can't correct her earlier screw-up without making yet another screw-up, doesn't that suggest that something is seriously wrong here?  And don't you, as her publishers, bear just a wee bit of responsibility for this kind of mendacity and laziness? 


Daniel W. Drezner