Tuesday, August 14, 2012

If Zakaria Plagiarized Lepore, Did Lepore Plagiarize Cramer?

As the New York Times reports here, Time magazine writer and CNN host Fareed Zakaria has been suspended from both of these positions for a month after he admitted plagiarizing an essay by Harvard University historian Jill Lepore in an column he wrote for Time. Zakaria has admitted that he made a "terrible mistake" and a "serious lapse," and he has been suspended from Time and CNN. I don't read or watch Zakaria on anything like a regular basis, and he apparently has a history of "borrowing" from other journalists' work. Whatever.

According to the New York Times, here is Lepore's original (which you can also read, in full, here):
As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”
And, here is Zakaria's (and here's the link to the full Time piece):
Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”
So, here's the question: Did Zakaria actually plagiarize?

Though many institutions and organizations have distinct definitions, in general, I understand plagiarism to be the representation of someone else's intellectual work as your own. In this case, the intellectual work being reported by both Lepore and Zakaria is Adam Winkler's.

Zakaria clearly cites Winkler's historical work.

Does his close paraphrasing of Lepore's paragraph summarizing Winkler's work require an additional citation?

Lepore's paragraph does not make an intellectual contribution distinct from Winkler's book. Though her essay uses the paragraph to support a unique intellectual effort, the summary of Winkler's work, taken alone, is not something that need be cited.

Indeed, Lepore's summary of the early state gun control laws is a fairly close paraphrase of Winkler's original. Here are key sentences from Winkler’s book, Gunfight, that Lepore summarizes, perhaps paraphrases, in her New Yorker essay:
No gun control law was more common in the late 1800s—on the frontier and elsewhere—than bans on concealed firearms.  According to the gun rights historican Clayton Cramer, concealed carry laws were among the earliest type of gun control laws adopted in the years after the American Revolution. The first bans on possession of concealed weapons in public were adopted in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Indiana banned concealed carry in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839, and Ohio 1859 (p. 166)… The intent of these laws was the same as that of many forms of gun control today. As Governor James Stephen Hogg of Texas said at the time, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law abiding man” (p. 167).
As Winkler makes clear, the history of early state gun laws is not his own work. Rather it is due to Clayton Cramer.

This is from Cramer's book Concealed Weapons Laws of the Early Republic (an online excerpt from the book on his website http://www.claytoncramer.com/books/concealed.pdf).
The adoption date for the state laws prohibiting or regulating the concealed carrying of deadly weapons in the early Republic would appear to be: Kentucky, February 3, 1813; Louisiana, March 25, 1813; Indiana, January 14, 1820; Georgia, December 25, 1837; Tennessee, January 27, 1838; Virginia, February 2, 1838; Alabama, February 1, 1839 (p. 2).
The source of the quotation from Governor Hogg used by Winkler is Gun Violence in America: The Struggle for Control  by Alexander DeConde (p. 98), though it is available elsewhere.

Winkler cites Cramer as the source of his summary of early state gun laws and paraphrases him and also takes a quote from DeConde. Lepore cites and paraphrases Winkler (making Winkler seem like the source of the original historical facts), but fails to cite either Cramer or DeConde. Zakaria cites Winkler and paraphrases Lepore but fails to cite Lepore, Cramer, or DeConde.

Is Zakaria a plagiarist? Is Lepore? Is Winkler's phrasing of the date summary too much like Cramer's?

No. No. No.

Everyone involved in this episode, such as it is, are making reference to historical facts, which are usually (but not always) subject to a "common knowledge" exception to most citation requirement. Here, though everyone is citing their own immediate source of the information they are passing on so that careful and interested readers can track the provenance of the historical record. No one is copying anyone else word for word, and everyone is describing a simple chronology that cannot help but be described in very similar language. (Go ahead and try to write a few sentences that describe the order in which states adopted these laws or ratified the Constitution or whatever and see if you don't come up with something similar.)

At the end of the day, Winkler did nothing wrong in summarizing Cramer and DeConde's work. Lepore did nothing wrong in repeating Winkler's summary. Zakaria did nothing wrong in passing along that summary of historical facts (except, given his admission of cribbing from Lepore, not reading Winkler's book).

Plagiarism is, of course, very serious business in journalism, academia, and any other intellectual enterprise. Zakaria was certainly flirting with plagiarism by closely paraphrasing and nearly copying Lepore's essay. Yet, he did not, in fact, copy her writing exactly. Instead, he repeated the same historical facts she did and cited the source from which he understood them to be drawn. Zakaria's work is poor journalism for failing to actually check his source, but it is not plagiarism.