On Sunday, Salon.com had an essay on the recent Fareed Zakaria plagiarism case. For those of you who don’t follow American middlebrow news sources with a passion, the story is that Zakaria—a regular commentator and columnist for CNN and TIME magazine—lifted a paragraph about the book Gunfight almost wholesale from a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore to include in his column. (See the comparison at NewsBusters, here.) Zakaria’s been suspended from both jobs, and has published one of those “I shouldn’t have done this, though I make no attempt to explain why I did” apologies.
The authors of the Salon piece, two history professors from Louisiana State University, use Zakaria as the jumping-off point for an attack on big-budget popular history and the non-historians who do it. I’m happy to see them get in some punches on the genre’s recycling of what we already know as “Great New Discoveries!” but I don’t think the argument that the problem is a lack of professional historical training is the problem here. Journalists know to give credit when credit is due (like those ubiquitous “additional reporting” tags) and people with doctorates in other fields (Zakaria received a PhD in Government from Harvard) know what plagiarism is. Plus, there are plenty of people with doctorates in history who are happy to write books that recycle old platitudes as “Great New Discoveries!”
I think the bigger problem is the extent to which the general readership has very little idea how much work it takes to develop something original, and why plagiarism is not just an ethical transgression but also a mark of boring work. Did Zakaria really not have anything to say about Gunfight that Lepore didn’t?
One of the big reasons readers don’t distinguish between the in-depth and the superficial is that they don’t realize how difficult that in-depth research is. I remember when I was planning a research trip to Britain just how surprised some of my friends were that nineteenth-century prime ministerial papers weren’t online, and these were grad students in physics: people working on the same university campus as me. As I experienced in my latest 6 month gap with no university library access, most serious scholarship is still behind paywalls or up in the stacks. Even if you only want basic secondary sources, it takes time to uncover what you need.
I’m not ranting here that everything should be freely and easily available on the internet, though it would be nice. My point is that getting dug into a topic beyond the most superficial level is work. It’s not quick, it’s not easy, and it’s not at anyone’s fingertips.
When someone lifts Jill Lepore’s summary of Adam Winkler’s Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, a book that itself is based on the research of hundreds of other scholars, we’re not just talking about an ethical transgression. We’re also talking about a situation where dipping a toe in the water gets presented as deep thinking. Look at the TIME column. Aside from the Winkler-citing paragraphs in the middle, the only sources worth naming are New York Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist George Will. Does this sort of thing even count as writing about gun control?
There’s nothing wrong with admitting that the world is filled with smart people who do smart work. Fareed Zakaria, up against a deadline, could have told people to read Lepore’s article (it’s available online here), or Winkler’s book, or Randy Roth’s American Homicide. There’s really no shortage of reading, even good reading, about the issue. It’s really too bad he took the road he did instead.
(UPDATE: Why I left the sciences out when talking about research, and why it would be nice if “humanities journalism” was a profession here)