Fareed Zakaria has often been criticized in this space for being an inveterate peddler of conventional wisdom about the Middle East and for his tone deaf and often highly inaccurate writings about Israel, the peace process, and the Iranian nuclear threat. But while we don’t expect that his employers at CNN and the Washington Post would hold him accountable for these failings, it remains puzzling as to how it is that even this quintessential foreign-policy insider isn’t being held accountable for sins that have nothing to do with his biases.
As Dylan Byers reports in Politico, charges of plagiarism are now mounting against the TV personality and columnist to the point where Newsweek, one of his former publishers has now chosen to add a disclaimer on its website archive noting the charges and soliciting readers to send in any evidence where articles he wrote “lacked proper attribution.”
Zakaria was disciplined back in 2012 for plagiarism that he claimed at the time to be an unintentional “mistake.” But since then he has continued to be dogged by accusations that he routinely steals the work of others in his books, articles, and TV. The Our Bad Media website claims this has happened more than three dozen times in recent years. As Byers has noted, more recently they have cited 24 such incidents of plagiarism on his Sunday morning CNN show. After consulting with journalism professors, the Politico writer says there is little doubt about the seriousness of the problem. Yet both the Post and CNN are not only failing to hold him accountable for any of this; they have gone so far as to dismiss the complaints entirely. Even CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter merely called the instances “attribution mistakes,” which is a nice way of saying he knows what happened is generally considered plagiarism but understands that Zakaria has become a sacred cow at the network who may not be attacked even when evidence of misconduct is incontrovertible.
As Byers noted, none of the instances of plagiarism are egregious but the accumulation of dozens of instances in which Zakaria lifts the words of others and then uses them as his own makes it clear there is a pattern of misconduct that would normally result in a firing. Byers is at a loss as to explain not only why Zakaria seems to be in no danger at either the Post or CNN but the absence of a genuine hubbub in the media over offenses that normally draw the scorn if not the anger of fellow journalists.
Allow me to offer a possible explanation.
Just as in the business world there are sometimes businesses that are considered too big to fail, so, too, in journalism there appear to be personal brands that have attained untouchable status. While Zakaria is a foreign-policy wonk and not a network anchor, his access to President Obama has given him a cachet that would otherwise be impossible for other journalists to attain. As a faithful supporter, if not unofficial courtier of the administration, Zakaria can always be relied upon to defend the president and his foreign-policy team no matter how many mistakes they make. In a media environment where foreign news is often marginalized even on the cable news channels, Zakaria has somehow risen to the point where he and perhaps his employers labor under the delusion that he is a latter-day Walter Lippmann, an essential commentator who helps create foreign-policy consensus rather than report or write about it.
Such a person is surely not invulnerable but is nevertheless sufficiently powerful to be able to ignore criticisms even of blatant ethics violations. Moreover, admitting the truth of Our Bad Media’s accusations would call into question not just the judgment and behavior of Zakaria but of his bosses. Instead of facing that storm, they appear to be hoping that they can brazen it out.
But if they think this is going away, they are profoundly mistaken. As Newsweek’s call for more information illustrates, Zakaria’s routine theft is a not a case of a few mistakes but of behavior that he may be incapable of halting.
The Washington Post and CNN may believe that being Fareed Zakaria means never having to say you’re sorry. But, as Politico and Newsweek have already discovered, this story isn’t going away.