What to Learn from the Zakaria & Lehrer Plagiarism Scandals

If you follow journalism as I do, you’re aware that it’s a big deal when a big-time journalist is busted for plagiarism.  Stephen Glass.  Jayson Blair.  It’s not every day that a major-media figure gets in hot water for passing off someone else’s work as their own, though I haven’t heard much evangelical talk about these events.

In recent weeks, not one but two major public intellectuals have been caught plagiarizing.  Fareed Zakaria, editor-at-large of Time and host of CNN’s “GPS,” used New Yorker writer Jill Lepore’s material without attribution in Time.  Jonah Lehrer, staff writer for the New Yorker (oddly related to both scandals), made up quotations from Bob Dylan for his best-selling Imagine (which I actually blogged a while back when it came out!).  Zakaria is presently suspended from Time and CNN, while Lehrer has been fired from the New Yorker (image to the left from Nina Subin/NYT).

Again, this may not be of interest to you–but it’s a very big deal in the world of ideas.  Both of these men play a big role in that world, and both have–or had–major platforms from which to broadcast their views.  Not incidentally, both did quite well for themselves–apparently Lehrer was drawing up to $20,000 per speech for his blend of pop-science and pop-psychology.  Though their fall from favor is difficult to witness, it’s also heartening to see our society respond to cheating and thievery in moral and ethical terms.  God’s common grace is at work in our world, much as it may appear otherwise at times.

What does this mean for the rest of us?  These scandals show the limits of even the most gifted person.  Both Zakaria and Lehrer are, from even a quick glance at their bios, overcommitted to the point of near-lunacy.  Ambition is a taxing master, and an evil one.  Lehrer writes for multiple outlets, travels constantly, and in his downtime writes best-sellers.  Zakaria hosts a show, writes a column, and also travels a great deal.  You and I may not be facing the schedules of these two figures, but it is incumbent upon us to structure our lives in a way that makes sense, a way that accords with the kind of biblical wisdom you find in the book of Proverbs.

Those of who are ambitious–and there is a godly form of it, no doubt–need the rhythms of church, family, service, and friendship to steer us away from our worst selves.  If we make ourselves too busy, we will do nothing well, and our lives will suffer in numerous areas.  I remember being disappointed at the hashed-over nature of a major evangelical leader’s talk.  I told my then-boss that I had heard 75% of the talk, which I had been eagerly anticipating, in previous years.  My boss then said, “Well, if you don’t give yourself any time to think and refresh, that’s what you’ll end up doing–regurgitating and rehashing.”  And plagiarizing.

And getting booted from your platforms.

So: do less.  Write less than you could.  Turn stuff down.  Practice the fine art of saying “no.”  Rest in God’s sovereignty and trust that He will get you to where you need to go.  Learn from scandals like these (and harrowing and moving testimonies like this from Jayson Blair).  And when you do write, be careful with your sources.  We all are human on this point, and need to constantly strive for excellence, and make corrections when we’re wrong–and none of us are above tumbling down our own hill of dreams.

And finally, pray for journalists and thought-leaders like Zakaria and Lehrer who have staked so much, so very much, on getting ahead and being the best.

They–and we–need a gospel that frees them from the slavery of unchecked ambition and the impossibility of failure.  They need a gospel that takes all their sins, nails them to wood, and puts them to death.

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