Zapped by Roger Ailes for Sloppy Thinking

My most successful item on this blog, to judge from comments, was called Harvard’s Plagiarism Scandal, and was successful for two reasons, because I brought up issues of racism in the Kaavya Visnawathan case, and because Roger Ailes, the political strategist, zapped me and started an intense conversation. (Thank you, Mr. Ailes.) [Got that wrong too: comment was from a blogger named Roger Ailes--Weiss, 5/20] Here’s what he said:

How is this Harvard’s Plagiarism Scandal? Ms. Viswanathan didn’t write the book for the Harvard Press, or for a course at Harvard. Harvard had nothing to do with her plagiarism or her book deal. Ruth Shalit is a New Republic scandal because the mag published her pilfered prose; Jack Kelley is a USA Toady scandal for the same reason. Ben Domenech was a Washington Post scandal because Domenech was an untalented, racist twit who was unqualified for the job, which the the Post knew, even if it was ignorant of his plagiarism. But Harvard didn’t hire this woman to work for them; it allowed her or her family to pay it a hundred thou or more for the privilege of attending the school. If Ms. Viswanathan fucked a bum while attending Harvard, would that be Harvard’s Bum-Fucking Scandal?

Ailes has a point. If I was to write my headline again, I’d say “Harvard student.” But I’m going to take him on. As he acknowledges in his counter-examples, sometimes stuff that an individual does on his own ends up sticking to an institution because it seems to reveal some fault in that institution. Connecting Domenech to the Post is something of a stretch; but Ailes pushes it because he thinks it reveals something bad about the Post’s standards. Executive editor Howell Raines went down for the Jayson Blair scandal because Blair’s fabrication revealed faultlines in the Times culture under Raines.

The reason people are blackening—sorry, besmudging—Harvard with Kaavya Visnawathan’s New York-published plagiarisms is that Kaavya’s literary meteor seems of a piece with her scholastic meteor—overambitious and patched-together. As Jon Liu has reported in the Independent, Kaavya got into Harvard thanks to a place called IvyWise, which packages students (and which has been scrambling to tone down its glitzy promotional material, which had included Visnawathan’s testimonials, because of Liu’s righteous scrutiny). And she produced her bestseller through a packager. We don’t know where the real Kaavya starts and the packagers stop.

In short, the Visnawathan story is about the cheesiness of high achievement. To what lengths will people go to get statusy badges, including the Harvard badge? Just how do kids get into Ivy League schools these days? In that sense, this is a Harvard scandal. Yes, I know, I’m stretching a little. But if you’re a high-profile institution, life isn’t fair. Just ask Duke.