Suppose I steal my neighbor Jill’s flat-screen television and install it in my living room. Jill or one of her friends who knows about Jill’s missing television comes over to my house a few days later, notices the television and asks, “Hey, isn’t that Jill’s television?”
I immediately confess. “Yes, it is,” I say. “I’m really sorry. It was a mistake.”
Jill or any interested observer or even the police might ask, “What do you mean by ‘mistake’? Did you mistakenly break into her house and mistakenly haul her huge flat-screen into your living room and set it up on the wall?”
Well, so far, most of the press seems content to let a colleague – Fareed Zakaria, who writes for Time and the Washington Post and has a Sunday CNN talk show – get off with exactly that explanation for stealing something. In this case, the theft was plagiarism.
As has been widely reported, it was discovered the week before last that Zakaria’s essay in that week’s edition of Time and on an accompanying blog post on CNN.com about gun control had a key, fact-filled paragraph that was almost identical to a paragraph in an April issue of the New Yorker by Harvard professor Jill Lepore. Two other important paragraphs, while not nearly as word-for-word, basically track what Lepore wrote. The three paragraphs – tracing the surprisingly long history of gun control laws in America – are by far the meatiest and seemingly most original parts of Zakaria’s 11-paragraph Time column.