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Plagiarism fells journalist Delhi banked on

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By K.P. NAYAR
  • Published 12.08.12
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Washington, Aug. 11: Fareed Zakaria, long thought of by New Delhi’s leadership as the first American secretary of state of Indian origin in the future, fell from grace yesterday when Time suspended his column in the weekly magazine for plagiarism.

CNN, where Zakaria is a star Sunday morning international affairs television host, followed suit with a statement that he wrote a blog post on CNN.com “which included similar unattributed excerpts. That blog post has been removed and CNN has suspended Fareed Zakaria while this matter is under review.”

Fareed, son of former Maharashtra minister, educationist and Islamic scholar Rafiq Zakaria and journalist Fatima Zakaria, has been one of the most visible and prominent Indian American faces with a presence well beyond the fourth estate into academia, think tanks and the lecture circuit here.

At least three Indian leaders at the very top have told this correspondent at varying periods that they assessed Zakaria as a potential US secretary of state. He was, therefore, cultivated by New Delhi and successive Indian leaders visiting Washington and New York gave Zakaria special access.

Once, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used Zakaria’s media reach as a platform to unveil sensitive Indian policy on the eve of Singh’s visit to the US and, in 2010, the Indian American was honoured with a Padma Bhushan.

At The Washington Post, where Zakaria writes a column, Fred Hiatt, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, said last night: “Fareed Zakaria is a valued contributor. We have never had any reason to doubt the integrity of his work for us. Given his acknowledgement today, we intend to review his work.”

Media watchers are waiting to see if Zakaria’s column, which is due in the Post next Wednesday, will be published.

The “acknowledgement” Hiatt referred to was an admission by Zakaria yesterday that he erred in using other people’s work without attribution.

“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column on gun control, which was also a topic of conversation on this (CNN) blog, bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologise unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time and CNN, and to my readers and viewers everywhere,” Zakaria’s statement said.

The controversy is as much of a headache for the media outlets Zakaria has been working for as for himself. CNN’s ratings and viewership have been falling steadily and bad publicity of this kind for one of its Sunday top talk show hosts is bound to further erode the network’s credibility and reputation.

Time, like other periodicals in America, is under siege: only a few weeks ago, Newsweek, once a formidable rival to Time, announced that it was ceasing print publication and will go entirely digital. Zakaria was editor of all of Newsweek’s editions abroad before he shifted to its rival in 2010.

An alumnus of Yale and Harvard, Zakaria has very impressive credentials. He became editor of Foreign Affairs, a magazine world leaders queue up to write for, at the age of 28. He is now 48.

A New York Times bestselling author, Zakaria is a trustee of Yale University and has received honorary degrees from several prestigious academic institutions such as the Ivy League Brown University and the Oberlin College.

The Columbia Journalism Review quoted various sources earlier this year to say that Zakaria commands a speaking fee of $75,000 per appearance and has been sought after by major financial firms such as Charles Schwab, Merrill Lynch and T. Rowe Price.

Two years ago, Foreign Policy magazine listed him among the top 100 global thinkers and Esquire described Zakaria as “the most influential foreign policy adviser of his generation”.

In the light of yesterday’s controversy, however, there were fears that the latest instance of Zakaria’s plagiarism may not be his first. Allegations by Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, in 2009 that Zakaria stole quotes from Goldberg’s work without attribution have now received new currency.

Charges that Zakaria gave a commencement address recently at Harvard that was identical to one he had earlier delivered at Duke University may also be revived now.

Zakaria’s credibility briefly suffered because he supported the George W. Bush administration’s war on Iraq and investigative journalist Bob Woodward subsequently wrote that Zakaria attended a meeting called by the then deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the war, to produce an Iraq report for Bush.

However, Zakaria changed his stance once the war became unpopular in the US and he later switched his support to Barack Obama, whom he endorsed in 2008 as a candidate for the White House.