The pressures of a 24/7 opinion moulder, and the fame and money that go with it, can lead even the most capable mind towards taking dishonest short cuts

The embarrassing revelation that international affairs pundit, Fareed Zakaria, had plagiarised in a recent Time magazine column raises questions about celebrity intellectualism and the punishing schedule of knowledge production under the media’s arc lights. Dr. Zakaria has apologised “unreservedly” for lifting portions of an essay written by a Harvard University professor in The New Yorker without attribution to the original source. Both Time and CNN revoked his temporary suspension shortly after his repentance, but that does not take away from the serious issue of intellectual integrity in public life.

This saga highlights demands placed on and taken up by well-placed columnists and television personalities who are expected to wax eloquent on varied issues at the drop of a hat. What is the basic rationale behind plagiarism? It is a form of dishonesty by cutting corners and trying to succeed either due to lack of time, knowledge or articulation power. For a person like Dr. Zakaria, who has distinguished academic training (he holds a PhD from Harvard) and is the author of acclaimed books, it is inconceivable that he plagiarised due to inadequate knowledge or shortage of the right words.

Academicians have to deal these days with mundane forms of plagiarism practised by students who have access to the copy-pasting luxury of the internet, and who cannot beat the bad habit despite repeated coaching about the nobility of using one’s own language and thoughts. At the stroke of a few keys of the computer, these web-savvy young people hope to cover up for their basic deficiencies in knowledge and inadequacy of reading through copying. To be sure, plagiarisers in high schools and colleges are also usually poor managers of their time, which may be frittered away in countless distractions, leaving them prone to the quick-fix of copy-pasting at the proverbial eleventh hour when assignments are due.

Fatigue factor

Even in the case of the highly accomplished Zakaria, there must have been a fatigue factor behind his stooping to such a low. He has a non-stop routine of penning columns for Time and The Washington Post, anchoring a weekly television show on CNN International, interviewing heads of state and business tycoons, and delivering lectures before universities, think tanks, business associations and global jamborees like the World Economic Forum.

The incriminating paragraph from his Time magazine column, which is almost identical to the original article in The New Yorker, is actually a purely factual one that lists dates when individual states in America adopted gun control laws. Dr. Zakaria did not borrow any big ideas of analytical nature, but merely reproduced verbatim some factoids. This goes on to buttress the argument that he was suffering from severe paucity of time and was unable to balance his conscience and the expectations of churning out brilliant opinions for the 24/7 news cycle.

A more damaging (though unproven) interpretation of what he has admitted to be a “terrible mistake” and “serious lapse” is that his Time magazine column, which is in the eye of the storm, may have been ghostwritten by some callous aide and that he simply signed off on it. It is an open secret that many global thought leaders, who dash from one megaphone public appearance to the next in an endless circuit, resort to fobbing off writings and speeches penned by faceless staffers as their own.

A previous accusation that he had delivered two identical addresses with hardly any difference in content to a graduating ceremony at Harvard and to a commencement event at Duke University has got wider circulation after the Time magazine scandal broke out. He has also been castigated for “quote-stealing” from The Atlantic magazine for a column he had written in Newsweek in 2009.

Given Dr. Zakaria’s extraordinary grasp over the state of the world, such acts of indiscretion can only be attributed to his propensity to take on many more assignments than he can do justice to. The lure of fame, as an opinion-moulder who has to give his two cents on every developing event, and possibly money — as a fee-charging star public speaker who cannot forego any lectern opportunity — is indeed a dangerous addiction.

Cases of leaders

But his minor acts of plagiarism pale before egregious cases like Karl-Theodor Guttenberg, the former Defence Minister of Germany, who was stripped of his PhD in 2011 by the University of Bayreuth for “substantially copying” from another source for his dissertation. Mr. Guttenberg was struggling at that time to juggle the twin act of simultaneously being a rising star as an elected member of the Bundestag (the German Parliament) and producing a doctoral thesis that was original. In April 2012, the then President of Hungary, Pál Schmitt, had his comeuppance when his university revoked his PhD for “direct translations” in 197 out of his 215-page thesis. Romania’s Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, is currently battling claims that “more than half” his PhD dissertation was plagiarised.

The essence of all these instances is that ambitious busybodies are desperate to pass off as superlative geniuses who can be practitioners, scholars, motivators and a lot more. Dr. Zakaria must be thankful for his already considerable achievements, reorder his commitments and return to what he excelled at — original analysis of the world.

As to the millions of students in schools and colleges who continue to fall back on plagiarism to somehow succeed and grapple with high academic standards, there are painful lessons to be learnt from these scandals of the famous. First, as Benjamin Franklin once said, honesty is the best policy. Even in a crassly materialistic and immoral ambience of contemporary society, where getting ahead by foul means is becoming normal, one must pause and realise that cheating at an early age in life is going to set a person up for a big fall. Second, there are no shortcuts to scholasticism, which rewards only those who read voraciously and take copious notes and annotations in the old fashioned way, even if the mediums have changed from paper and pencil to laptops and iPads.

Technology and access to the Internet should not become excuses for a pervasive culture of lying, which is the deeper meaning of plagiarism. I am advising my students of international affairs to be truthful and to stay clear of the “Zakaria trap,” even as they continue to follow and read his extraordinary writings.

(Dr. Sreeram Sundar Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, Haryana.)

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