“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 CNN.com “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?