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'Washington Post' To Add Editor's Notes To Fareed Zakaria Columns


Borrowing material without attributing it can get you in trouble in school, on the radio or in a newspaper. It's an accusation that's come up multiple times now against for Fareed Zakaria. He's a CNN host, an author, a columnist, and this week The Washington Post became the fifth news organization to say that work it has published by Zakaria appears to have attribution problems. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from our studio in New York to talk about this. And David, what are the latest allegations against Zakaria?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, these allegations are actually from two pseudonymous bloggers with the names crushingbort and blippoblappo, if you can believe that. But they've intensely scrutinized his work in recent days and weeks, and they've argued that he's done so much lifting unattributed characterizations of other people's reporting that it amounts to plagiarism. And in fact, in recent weeks, you've seen Newsweek penned editor's notes and apologies to about a half-dozen of its stories. And just today, the Washington Post editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, did the same for four articles that he had posted in the past for The Post as well.

SIEGEL: And when did these allegations against Zakaria - when did they first emerge?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the first serious one was actually in 2012, and it arrived from a different route. The NRA and then the conservative media watchdog group NewsBusters pointed out strong similarities between a Zakaria column on guns and an article in The New Yorker by the scholar Jill Lepore. She, in turn, had been writing about a book from an academic named Adam Winkler. And Zakaria said he made a terrible mistake.

But in that instance, it certainly seemed as though he was relying not just on facts that he had derived from Winkler's book and from her article about it, but from sort of the structure, the hierarchy, the architecture of her argument in making a case for why people were misconstruing the history of gun rights and gun control in this country.

SIEGEL: And how have Zakaria and his various employers responded to the complaints?

FOLKENFLIK: In that instance in 2012, Zakaria was very contrite. Since then, you know, in these instances Zakaria has released statements saying he was sloppy and apologetic. Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor I mentioned at The Washington Post, had said look, we take this seriously. You know, failure to attribute and to credit other sources for their original work is unacceptable.

But he also said in this instance he felt they're relatively minor cases - that he Zakaria had, you know, in a number of them cited the sources involved and have credited them - you know, in one instance had failed to fully quote a sentence that followed a citation of the very source he was deriving information from. He said look, this - in essence they're conveying these are misdemeanors and not felonies - that they're serious and that there are victims involved - both the person whose work isn't being fully attributed and also the reader who has reason to expect original work - and at the same time that this doesn't amount to true plagiarism of the sense that you and I might think a of where you're just, you know, cribbing things wholesale.

SIEGEL: But it sounds, at The Post, it's not a zero-tolerance policy. They're adding warnings to old columns - editor's notes - but they're continuing to take on new columns.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, you talk to somebody like Jacob Weisberg, who's an executive over at Slate, about other publications. Slate, too, has recently posted an editor's note apologizing for a column Zakaria wrote more than a decade ago about mixed drinks - nothing, you know, of the geo-finance or politics or...

SIEGEL: Yeah, he was the wine and spirits columnist there.

FOLKENFLIK: (Laughter) For a day, basically. And they apologized for that, too. And, you know, Jacob Weisberg actually says he disagrees with that decision - that he thinks this is pretty minor stuff. The guy who was the first editor of Slate once famously said early in his magazine editing days, cite once and steal at will. And they say actually Zakaria is not doing that - that maybe he was sloppy in this.

What other critics are saying, including these two pseudonymous bloggers, is look, Zakaria is getting away with stuff that others wouldn't be allowed to do who are more junior - who don't have the brand-name recognition that he does, and that these series of misdemeanors amount to a felony in the aggregate. Zakaria says look, what he's doing isn't plagiarism, it's mistakes, and that he's regretted them, and they haven't happened since 2012.

SIEGEL: OK, thank you, David.


SIEGEL: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.