An Interview With the Anonymous Media Watchdogs Who Accused Fareed Zakaria of Plagiarism

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Fareed Zakaria, CNN pundit and The Washington Post columnist, in 2012. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

On August 19, two bloggers calling themselves CrushingBort and BlippoBlappo published a blog post titled “Did CNN, The Washington Post, and Time Actually Check Fareed Zakaria’s Work for Plagiarism?” on their media watchdog blog, Our Bad Media. In it, the pair highlighted 12 examples of alleged plagiarism on Zakaria’s part. It was not the first time the writer weathered such accusations. Zakaria, a celebrated columnist and author, had previously been suspended from Time and CNN in 2012 after conservative media watchdog Newsbusters pointed out striking similarities between Zakaria’s column in Time and a piece by Jill Lepore for The New Yorker. Nor was it the first time CrushingBort and BlippoBlappo have leveled such charges. In July, the two took on BuzzFeed’s “viral politics” editor, Benny Johnson, and won: BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith fired Johnson after Bort and Blappo exposed numerous examples of plagiarism

Less than a month later, the duo returned with two more blog posts containing more plagiarism accusations against Zakaria from his time at Time, The Washington Post and—in one instance—this publication. Zakaria was a columnist and editor for Newsweek from 2000 until 2010, though he hasn’t been involved with the magazine for four years. CNN and The Washington Post stuck by Zakaria in the face of mounting evidence; Newsweek conducted an internal review of Zakaria’s work and asked the public to contact Newsweek with “information about articles by Mr. Zakaria that may purportedly lack proper attribution.”

But the only submissions we received were from the same two self-styled watchdogs. After careful review, Newsweek has removed its blanket correction notice from Zakaria’s author page, and has instead appended specific corrections to those articles that Newsweek staffers felt warranted them. Newsweek also requested an interview with CrushingBort and BlippoBlappo to learn about their methods and their motivations. Their answers, provided via email, appear below.

NW: Why/how did you pick Benny Johnson as a target for your watchdog activities?

CB: We took a look at Benny Johnson after he tweeted a series of complaints about having one of his articles plagiarized by the Independent Journalism Review (seen herehere and here).  Given Buzzfeed’s notoriety for appropriating others’ content and the fact that Benny was probably one of the least-liked people in our particular corner of Twitter, it seemed worth a gander. We had no idea the plagiarism would be that widespread.

NW: Why/how did you pick Fareed Zakaria after Benny?

BB: (Ben) Smith’s blithe reply to our initial post on Johnson got us questioning the extent to which editors actually bother to check claims of malfeasance by their star writers. The “investigation” by CNN, Time, and WaPo into Zakaria’s work in the wake of his 2012 plagiarism scandal seemed like a perfect place to test those questions.

NW: Has Fareed, or anyone at CNN, The Washington Post, or any other publication with which he’s affiliated, or anyone related to him in any way, attempted to contact you?

BB: No, though one reporter claimed to have Zakaria’s cell number, and said that—if we did an interview with him—he would call Zakaria to ask about the allegations.

CB: In what seems like a pretty egregious deviation from journalistic norms, CNN’s Brian Stelter did a segment exonerating Zakaria without reaching out to us (and we reached out to him on Twitter plenty of times).

NW: Ditto re: Benny?

BB: Despite thanking by name (er, handle) in the initial reply, Smith never reached out to us directly regarding our allegations.

NW: Do either of you have any background in media, or want to be in media?

BB: We’re not reporters, and we are not looking to use our posts on plagiarism as a means to land a job in the industry.

CB: I once did a hard-hitting story in the school paper on the poor quality of our drinking fountains, but no, I don’t consider myself a journalist by any means.

NW: If not, why did you decide to act as media watchdogs?

CB: In the case of Benny Johnson, because he was a strongly dislikable person who was committing one of the supposedly cardinal sins of journalism. One of the oddities of his whole case was that he’d made a number of bigoted remarks before (as highlighted in the FeedBuzz piece) and had even run a story publishing anonymous death threats from government officials and contractors, but it was the copying and pasting that would eventually cross the line. As for Zakaria: Nobody else was doing it. It’s hard to convey the sense of disbelief in finding that several of the biggest and most respected news outlets in the country either lied about having reviewed Zakaria’s work or did it very, very poorly. Even more amazing is that they would turn a blind eye to post-2012 allegations.

NW: Why do you think Benny lost his job, but Fareed has seemed to weather the storm?

CB: Benny Johnson didn’t have a flagship news show and years of writing the kind of books and columns that appeal to the kind of people who use terms like “thought leader” with a straight face. Paul Krugman once called Newt Gingrich “a stupid man’s idea of what a smart person sounds like,” but we’d expand that description to Zakaria, too. For a man with multiple Ivy League degrees, it’s hard to recall any of his work that would be considered particularly groundbreaking. He’s one of the more prominent faces of conventional wisdom in politics and it’s clear from opening up the opinion section of The New York Times or The Washington Post that that kind of role comes with job security most people could only dream of.

BB: It’s a matter of incentives. BuzzFeed’s claim as a legitimate journalism entity is viewed as tenuous by its competition (and readers) alike. To maintain that legitimacy, it needed to fire Johnson. On the other hand, most of the news organizations Zakaria worked for are established. They have much to lose in admitting he plagiarized in their publications and little to gain by adhering to the tenets of good journalism. Remember the fallout The New York Times faced in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, where management and editors alike faced incredible embarrassment and damage to their professional reputations. And unlike Blair, Zakaria continues to be valuable in himself—disciplining him means tarnishing a ratings-winning brand. American trust in the media is at an all-time lowexecutives may doubt that shielding Zakaria would sink them any further.

NW: Do you have another target lined up? If so, who is it?

CB: We’ve found a number of other examples. When, if, and how to announce them we’re not sure of. But it would probably be a good idea for major newspapers to revisit standard practices when it comes to sourcing.

NW: Tell me about your methods. How do you go about finding specific instances of malfeasance? Paint me a picture of the process.

BB: We do what any diligent editor would when marking up a piece, with an eye toward: research claimed as “original” that seems beyond the skill of the author; sudden shifts in voice; inaccurate statistics; and the deployment of incredibly specific facts. There was surprise that we were able to find Zakaria’s theft without the use of anti-plagiarism software (we don’t use software because, well, it’s expensive, and considering the lengths some will go to cover up their lifting, it’s hard to know if those programs would be adequate in ferreting out theft). What we’re surprised about is that any editor could have read Zakaria’s pieces and not have found clear theft. Many of the examples stuck out like a sore thumb, even to the untrained eye.

NW: Why did you choose to be anonymous? Do you think your anonymity has helped or hurt your cause? Would you ever consider shedding your anonymity? Do you expect it to last?

CB: Like a lot of other people on Twitter, we’ve just used the site as an anonymous outlet to shoot the shit, joke around and catch up on news. We were anonymous before we ever posted anything on OBM. While we’d like to think that calling out blatant plagiarism is a nonpartisan good deed that wouldn’t result in any sort of underhanded backlash, we don’t feel an overriding need to test that theory. Brian Stelter reinforced that recently when he went on a multibillion dollar news network to trash our work without ever feeling the need to seek or acknowledge any comment from us. As for whether that anonymity has hurt us, we’ve never felt that we’re the ones losing face here. Even assuming the worst-case scenario here where we’re some kind of Astroturf operation or hired guns (we’re not), the examples we’ve found are public and independently verifiable, as well as newsworthy for a number of reasons. Zakaria’s a big name who already had one well-reported instance of plagiarism that his outlets claimed was isolated. It very clearly wasn’t and it very clearly hasn’t stopped. If reporters pass on that story because we won’t give our names, I don’t think we’re the ones people would be raising eyebrows at. How many anonymous sources does the average reader already come across on any given day?

NW: How do you feel about the results of your work? Are you satisfied with the media’s reaction to your revelations? Which publications’ reactions do you like most? Which do you dislike?

BB: Personally, I loved the reaction of Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg when we showed him that Zakaria plagiarized in Slate. He called our work “bullying vigilantism that is pure J. Edgar Hoover.” But seriously, Politico’s Dylan Byers and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon deserve plaudits for keeping on this story, as does Esquire’s Ben Collins for giving us a byline. I’m most dissatisfied with all the media reporters who have privately told us they believe our allegations, but have refused to run a story on them because of our anonymity. Those folks are as much of the problem as Zakaria or his still-silent employers.

CB: Ryan Cooper in The Week and Luke O’Neil in Esquire wrote a couple of my favorite columns on our work so far, and as a longtime TPM reader it was neat to see something we did covered by Brendan James & Tom Kludt on a regular basis (their story on the scholar who was “delighted” at being ripped off was one of the better examples of the kinds of favors Zakaria was able to call in). Dylan Byers covered the story regularly and aggressively as well. That reporters cover it at all is laudable given the apparent risk of stepping on colleagues’ toes and closing future possible job prospects. When you see Buzzfeed run a not insignificant number of articles on plagiarism in 2014 political campaigns but never once mention Zakaria, it’s hard to not get the impression there’s some sore feelings guiding the editorial coverage. Without a doubt, the worst reaction was CNN’s. They fed Politico’s Byers and Hadas Gold the same statement over and over, even when it no longer applied to the newer revelations about Zakaria’s work. Then their media critic—who had no trouble covering our work before or past plagiarism by CNN employees—goes silent before eventually getting around to covering for Zakaria. Brian Stelter is not a particularly polarizing figure, but come on. The network chose to protect a brand rather than acknowledge serial theft. That’s pretty damning and raises the question of how the network can cover future plagiarism stories with any sort of credibility.

NW: How’d you pick your screen names?

CB: I googled “Bort” because of the well-loved Simpsons scene and lo and behold Wikipedia said it’s apparently some sort of diamond. Blippoblappo, as I understand it, was an Oingo Boingo cover band that never took off.  

NW: How do you know each other?

BB: Biblically.

CB: Platonically.

NW: Any background info on yourselves you can give us?

CB: We’re not reporters or disgruntled former/current employees, we don’t hold any fancy Ivy League degrees, and we haven’t taken a cent for any of our work on this. We’re news junkies who got curious and fell down the rabbit hole, pretty much.

NW: How do you respond to the claim that most of what FZ has done amounts to “ungenerous” quoting, and not plagiarism?

CB: At best, Zakaria’s “ungenerous quoting” was done to maintain plausible deniability. Having read more of his work than I ever would’ve liked, the ultimate takeaway is that the goal of every Fareed Zakaria segment, article, speech, etc. is to convey one simple point: “Look how smart and important this Fareed Zakaria is.” It’s not just the way he constantly references his “take” on the subject in his CNN segments or how well connected he is (see, for example, his correcting an interviewer that his meetings with Obama were “face-to-face” and not over the phone). It’s the way he takes other sources and purposefully either omits credit or rephrases the information so that his audience will likely infer it’s his own work. It’s a constant stream of self-promotion. Hold that up in comparison to actual reporting, like The New York Times story today on lobbyists working to influence attorneys general. That’s journalism. That took elbow grease and probably more than a few cups of coffee. When you realize that those are the kinds of reporters struggling to keep their jobs while Zakaria is the kind of guy who gets booked at conventions filled with lobbyists, it strikes a nerve. And if you have a chance to highlight it on Twitter in between jokes about ’90s movies, why not?

BB: Agree with everything above. Journalists are putting their lives on the line covering wars while Zakaria is getting paid big bucks to lift other people’s hard work. His theft mars their craft. I also want to underscore that there’s no difference between the two—“ungenerous” quoting just is plagiarism. It misleads audiences and undermines the hard work of the sources stolen from—that is, the same things that make plagiarism an unforgivable sin. To quote from the National Summit to Fight Plagiarism & Fabrication’s report on truth in journalism:

The guidelines on plagiarism of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University offer clear, direct advice: “Quote and attribute: Use the exact words in quotation marks and include who said it or wrote it. Paraphrase and attribute: Use your own words, but still include who said it or wrote it.” Quotation marks are only part of the answer. Taking a quote from another publication without crediting the source is plagiarism, pure and simple.

On a related note, some have claimed that Zakaria’s on-air plagiarism should be given a pass because he didn’t write it himself. Our response is simple: Regardless of who actually wrote the words in Zakaria’s script, shouldn’t the person who spoke them on air and whose name graces the title of the show be held responsible for its content? Keep in mind that Zakaria’s on-air plagiarism was reflected in blog posts that also didn’t include proper citation. To quote the NSFP report again (which was notably supported by the Radio Television Digital News Association):

When broadcasting what print or other media are reporting, on-air credit is appropriate and links or written acknowledgment of original sources should be included in the online versions of broadcast pieces. But giving credit should not be construed as a free pass for the verbatim lifting of copy from those original stories.

NW: I see you’re using encrypted email. Do you have any reason to believe somebody is trying to read your email?

CB/BB: No, we don’t think anyone’s reading our email. But we have private conversations with reporters, and we needed an email service that allows us to keep those conversations private and preserves our anonymity.

UPDATE: Below is a list of Newsweek articles by Fareed Zakaria that now contain an editor's note: