When Governor Romney announces his choice for Vice-President this morning in Virginia, one regular political journalist will not be reporting live on CNN. Fareed Zakaria, of Time-Warner has been suspended for plagiarism. One of the most admired journalists in the United States has proven himself to be just as personally dishonest as his superficial reporting often was. The truth about Zakaria is now out there, and it betrays a troubling trend in American journalism and news reporting.
The article in question appeared in Time and included a paragraph that was a rather obvious paraphrasing of an article that previously appeared in The New Yorker. Zakaria has confessed under pressure from the Time-Warner management that he plagiarised, calling it ‘a terrible mistake’ and ‘serious lapse’, one assumes in judgement. While the obvious victim of this act of dishonesty is Jill Lepore, who had her work unjustifiably stolen, the wider crime has been committed against the American people.
Fareed Zakaria is highly thought of, particularly by other contributors to this website. For those of us passionately concerned with foreign policy in general, and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular, Zakaria has a cult-like following that has little if any justification. Zakaria’s comments regarding Israeli policy are usually glib and always a gross simplification of the facts. His apparent moderation considering his background is held up as an example, when it is anything but. The Zakaria obsession with a post-American world is another example of where the disgraced journalist embraced what he wanted to be true rather than what the facts support. Prone to simplifying every foreign policy challenge to the United States he addresses, his ability to be articulate while doing so has won him a band of admirers who scoff at considerably more insightful writers.
More than his faux post-partisan approach to reporting, Zakaria was important to US media because he was not what almost all other major journalists are. White. The collective fawning over a first generation immigrant succeeding so completely was understandable, if a little short sighted. The extent to which Zakaria may now have set back minority journalists through an unfair guilt-by-association should be of real concern.
An articulate, non-hyperbolic and smiling man on the TV who wrote with apparent authority over such a range of issues. One can understand why so many Americans fell so deeply in love with Fareed. Unfortunately, Fareed never really justified that affection with particularly insightful reporting. A follower not a leader. A plagiariser, not a visionary.
Neither is the fall of Fareed something to be particularly celebrated. While his triumph of mediocrity should not be repeated, his collapse into failure gives us all some idea of how major journalists gain that position in American media. Zakaria was not an exceptional journalist, but he was a decent reporter. He provided slightly less pathetic commentary than many of his colleagues on the networks. Losing him is made more painful by the fact there are so few impressive people to replace him.
Take a moment now to survey the American media. Who are the exceptional reporters? The impressive journalists? Certainly there are some great polemicists, but those committed to insightful and balanced reporting? There really are very few. That Zakaria did it to only a mediocre level does not change the fact on most issues he did do it.
Perhaps the fall of Fareed Zakaria and the fact it warrants an article in itself tells us the real problem in American media, and the reason why there are so few people of substance working in it. We know his name. He is a celebrity, not a journalist.
Like any celebrity, the public can be fickle and picky. Especially when you’re a liar and a cheat.