Fareed Zakaria, Jonah Lehrer and Plagiarism in the Digital Age.

In 2003, The New York Times journalist Jayson Blair resigned from the newspaper in the wake of the discovery of plagiarism and fabrication in his stories. He is now reportedly working as a life coach in Virginia—his crimes not forgotten by the journalistic community or the public.

Recently, the ethics of two other journalists have been called into question.

Most recently, Fareed Zakaria was suspended by Time and CNN after it was reported that he plagiarized a paragraph from the New Yorker for his Time column. And just a few weeks prior, journalist Jonah Lehrer resigned from his role of columnist for The New Yorker after claims that he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for his best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,”—copies of which have been subsequently pulled by the publisher. Lehrer has also publicly apologized for taking some of his writings from The Wall Street Journal, Wired and other publications and used them as content for his blog on the The New Yorker.

Following a review of Zakaria’s work, Time magazine and CNN announced that they would revoke his suspension, while still acknowledging it as “a journalistic lapse.”

"We have completed a thorough review of each of Fareed Zakaria's columns for Time, and we are entirely satisfied that the language in question in his recent column was an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized," a statement from Time read. 

Lehrer seems to have a tougher road to journalistic redemption. While the magazine Wired has agreed to keep him on as a columnist, he seems to be pushed into purgatory for a bit longer than Zakaria. Lehrer’s “crimes” are somewhat peculiar, and may be more of a sign of the digital age, than lapses of judgment. He’s admitted to recycling content that he himself originally authored, and in what was called by The New York Times “one of the most bewildering recent journalistic frauds” had made up a quote by Bob Dylan. The book’s thesis did not hinge on the quote, but its validity certainly was questioned because of the lapse of fact-based content.

The question for Lehrer and Zakaria is not IF they will be forgiven for their mistakes, but WHEN—a factor based on how reprehensible current society sees their indiscretions.

In 2010, an article in The New York Times took a look at the new role of plagiarism in the digital age—looking particularly at how students viewed it as an ethical breach. It is probably telling as to where we are as a society, and how Zakaria and Lehrer will ultimately fair as they redeem themselves as journalists in the public eye.

“It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism,” the article says, “Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.”

As we as a society get used to grabbing content from the Internet for our personal use, the line of journalistic plagiarism may appear less offensive. While Jayson Blair’s fabrications most likely would still be seen as unforgiveable, Zakaria and Lehrer’s mistakes--right or wrong, ethical or not, may be far easier for today’s readers to forgive.

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