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What Have We Learned From Fareed Zakaria? Comments, "Don't Be Sad"

22 August 2012

By Mshari al-Zaydi

Last week an important story emerged that every Arab journalist and columnist should closely monitor. This is a story that teaches a valuable lesson whilst also representing a stern warning regarding the ethics governing a career in the media, or indeed writing in general.

In summary, the story is that US media "star" Fareed Zakaria had plagiarized passages in his article for "Time" magazine on gun control in the US from another writer.

An internet website revealed this case of plagiarism, which was limited to certain paragraphs, not the entire article. The news spread widely, but Zakaria was not obstinate and promptly offered an apology to "Time" magazine, which temporarily suspended him. Zakaria was also suspended by CNN, where he presents his famous television show, as well as the Washington Post.

It is noticeable that despite the heavyweight nature of the institutes where Zakaria works, not to mention his own personal fame, knowledge and history as a journalist, these were all of no assistance to him after he violated the ethical and professional values that rule his career.

The best comment that I read on the Fareed Zakaria incident was written by American critic and columnist David Zurawik. Zurawik said that it was no surprise that there was an instant and decisive punishment regarding Zakaria's actions This is because "plagiarism used to be a deadly journalistic sin from which there often was no redemption." The internet has made numerous sources of information readily available, and this may allure some writers to simply copy and paste without attribution, however –at the same time – the internet has made it easier to expose those who plagiarize.

Yes, this discreditable conduct has spread widely because of the deteriorating standards of writing, not to mention the media in general, as well as the proliferation of media outlets. Let us set aside Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs from this discussion, for these represent a separate issue, and only look at television and print media, particularly as such media today contain standards and practices that would have been inconceivable in the past.

According to critic David Zurawik, the main cause of this is the lack of ethical values in journalism, not to mention the ease provided by the internet. Hence, in terms of writing and analysis, there are writers who are "masters" of their field and those who know nothing. There are writers who know all the faucets of a story's background and significance, and those who do not. There are writers who know history, and those who do not. Therefore any writer who is merely seeking fame need only click on "Google" to be met with a sea of information which they can take without attribution or even necessary being aware of all the story's dimensions. This, however, results in an unfair parity between an informed person and an uniformed one, at least superficially.

The crux of the matter, in my assessment, lies in the mad rush for fame and fortune, self-exaggeration and deteriorating standards of writing, confusion between uninformed typing and well-informed and well-thought out writing.

We live in a time of ease and comfort. Yet, Fareed Zakaria's lesson may serve as an alarm for those among us who are not of the same journalistic quality as him, but are nevertheless plagiarizing far more than he did and are still held in high esteem by societies that seem indifferent to the crucial need to exclude those who transgress the value of the word, not to mention their own ethical integrity.

Allow me to conclude by quoting well-known Saudi writer Khalaf al-Harbi's comments on this particular issue, "don't be sad."

A Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism as well as Saudi affairs. Mshari is Asharq Al-Awsat's opinion page Editor, where he also contributes a weekly column. Has worked for the local Saudi press occupying several posts at Al -Madina newspaper amongst others. He has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

 

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