Scandal du Jour: Plagiarism!

The Words” is a new film starring everyone’s favorite faux Frenchman, Bradley Cooper. Its plot, as we understand it, revolves around the concept of author as plagiarist–and while we can’t exactly recommend the movie based on its critical reception, we thought we’d use this opportunity (and the emergence of another small-scale plagiarism story) to examine parallel scandals that engaged the chattering classes this summer: the public trials of Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria.

Seems like everyone is copying the work of others these days–even noted wordsmith Chuck Norris has been caught red-handed. The two men at the center of this hot topic are very different personalities—and both the charges leveled against them and the public’s reaction to their respective PR crises have been very different as well. Fareed Zakaria is a respected journalist and TV news personality while Jonah Lehrer is (or, more accurately, was) a rising writer, speaker, and acknowledged expert in the realms of neurology and human behavior.

What, exactly, did they do?

Zakaria copied a paragraph of a Time article on gun control from an earlier New Yorker piece by historian Jill Lepore. CNN also found that one of his blog posts for “contained similar unattributed quotes.” When accused of other acts of sloppy journalism, he lashed out at critics before backing down.

Lehrer’s first crime was plagiarizing himself—observers discovered that he often repeated passages that had appeared in previous columns or books. While this was bad news for Lehrer, it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world. Unfortunately, further investigations uncovered a disturbing history of similar behavior during his time at Wired and other publications. And that wasn’t the worst of it: The final, damning revelation was the fact that Lehrer had straight-up invented nonexistent Bob Dylan quotes for his bestselling book “Imagine”—and when pressed on his offense, he denied it and made more false claims before breaking down and confessing to his own dishonesty.

The saddest part about these stories is that both writers remain very talented, very busy men who obviously bit off more than they could chew. What conclusions can we, as PR and media professionals, draw from their cases?

Let’s examine the ways in which they dealt with their respective controversies: Zakaria acknowledged his missteps, apologized repeatedly, and received a slap on the wrist in the form of a temporary suspension from Time and CNN as well as a one-month blackout at The Washington Post; he will undoubtedly live to report again, though his credibility has taken a hit. By taking responsibility for his actions, Zakaria almost certainly downplayed what could have been a series of ethical lapses.

Lehrer, on the other hand, found himself in a hole and kept digging, absolutely ruining a promising career in the process. By denying what he knew to be true, Lehrer made himself a less sympathetic and ultimately indefensible character.  He has now been effectively blacklisted after resigning from the New Yorker and having copies of his books recalled. He has been silent on social media and seems to have all but disappeared from the face of the earth–with good reason.

Was this all the internet’s fault? Were these writers so pressed to come up with new content that they saw no choice but to pass their own material and that of others as original? We think that explanation is too easy.

The New York Times columnist David Carr notes in this prescient analysis that, in an era of blogging and re-blogging, original concepts are more valuable than original content. He also points out an obvious fact: copying stuff is very different than making stuff up. Of course, one could argue that both Lehrer and Zakaria overextended themselves, but no one forced them to do that. Their actions were theirs and theirs alone.

The lesson for media professionals? When you’ve made a mistake, full disclosure is often the best option, especially when your actions raise significant ethical questions. We think most will agree that the online world has made it harder for chronic plagiarists to hide. But does the crowd-sourced web and the immediate availability of so much content make the ease of plagiarism more tempting than ever before? Has the practice of blogging, pasting and posting made plagiarists of us all?

PR pros: Did Lehrer and Zakaria receive appropriate punishments for their journalistic crimes? What does Lehrer need to do to make a comeback? Is he destined for a career as a “life coach” like Jayson Blair, or will he rise again as an older and wiser writer?