The movie Shattered Glass tells the story of the young TNR reporter Stephen Glass who, eager to impress his superiors, fabricated parts of stories and sometimes entire stories. He was discovered by his editor, and his life since has been a Sisyphean struggle to try to regain his integrity. Sisyphean because mostly people still don’t trust him. Though he passed the bar in NY and CA, he was blocked from admittance – even professional liars like lawyers don’t want Glass around.
Last week, Jonah Lehrer of The New Yorker came clean about inventing Bob Dylan quotes to illustrate his own sociological hypothesis. Since then, he’s admitted to contriving other celebrity quotes. Today, the news broke that Fareed Zakaria, an editor at Time and the host of his own CNN program, plagiarized whole paragraphs of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article about gun control, published only a week prior. Sadly, this will probably be the tip of the iceberg, as both the Glass & Lehrer cases proved.
It seems incredibly stupid to plagiarize, especially when your main audience is smart people. But the plagiarizers themselves are incredibly smart – as it turns out, intelligence doesn’t always come with a moral compass. This has never been more perfectly epitomized than by the players in the recent financial crisis – time and again we hear about these incredibly smart guys, top of the class, who cheated anyway. Is it simply a case of good old-fashioned Caesarean hubris wherein everyone tells you you’re brilliant so often that you begin to believe you’re immune to human frailty and shitting gold brick? Or is it the opposite, that the pressure to live up to the brilliant moniker motivates people like Zakaria or the infamous Jayson Blair to concoct increasingly fabulist stories?
In the case of Zakaria, it seems like sheer laziness if you look at his almost word for word copying. Is he just overworked with the new CNN show? If so, he should ask Ryan Seacrest how he does it. Still, like Lehrer and Glass, Zakaria must have believed he could not be found out. Jayson Blair, who was famously fired from the New York Times for plagiarism, also suffered from hubris, though he tried mightily to blame the culture at the Times for confusing his notions of right and wrong.
I was taught in school that plagiarism was wrong. A girl a few classes ahead of me failed to graduate because she had plagiarized a large part of her thesis about Coco Chanel. I lived in fear that someone would think I was plagiarizing when I really wasn’t which was similar to a virgin fearing immaculate conception. I took it all the way down the line, thinking no one would believe me, just like a prego virgin. I tried desperately to come up with new, innovative, even wacky ideas to prove I was original. But then I suppose I suffered from the opposite of hubris.