CNN Tries to Contain Damage from Spitzer Outing Zakaria’s Consultations for Obama

Two days after liberal Democratic politician/CNN host Eliot Spitzer told fellow CNN host Fareed Zakaria it “brought a smile to my face” and “makes my heart warm” to learn President Obama “calls you for wisdom and advice about issues around the world,” Zakaria took to CNN’s Web site for his Sunday show, Fareed Zakaria GPS, to issue a “clarification on my conversations with the President” in which Zakaria, an in unusual late Saturday afternoon posting, declared: “The characterization that I have been ‘advising’ President Obama is inaccurate.”

Zakaria maintained that all he’s done is “had a couple of conversations with the President, off-the-record. At no point did President Obama ask me for advice on a specific policy.” Apparently, “conversations” that are “off-the-record” do not constitute “advising.”

The next day, on Sunday’s Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz accepted Zakaria’s explanation and only offered a gentle reprimand for not making the meetings known. Kurtz relayed how Zakaria claimed “that the two meetings he's had with Obama in recent months give him a sense of the President's thinking, and that he used to have the same kinds of meetings with, for example, Condi Rice.”

Kurtz decided: “I agree with Fareed's last point, that part of what he's getting at the White House is high-level spin. That's why I think the fact of the meetings should have been disclosed. Zakaria says that's not part of the arrangement, but it should be. Otherwise, people will inevitably have doubts when word leaks out.”

Doubts indeed when the host of a CNN show is discussing with the President the very policies that journalist later assesses on his foreign-policy oriented show.

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[Back in October of 2008, unsurprisingly, Zakaria used his CNN program to endorse Barack Obama:

Newsweek/CNN's Fareed Zakaria Announces He's Voting for Obama

Not that it's any big surprise given his well-established liberal views and contempt for conservative policies, but in what is an unusually blatant abandonment of basic journalistic pretenses, CNN on Sunday -- and Newsweek in this week's issue -- provided time and space for Fareed Zakaria to outline why he will be voting for the “steady and reasoned” Barack Obama. Along the way, he denigrated Sarah Palin as “a rabble-rousing ultraconservative.” At the end of his Sunday (October 19) CNN program, Fareed Zakaria: GPS, Zakaria told his viewers of his choice, concluding:

John McCain represents the best of America's past, and Barack Obama the hope of the future -- the hope of a country that can make big changes and live out one of its greatest promises, of equal opportunities for all Americans, of every caste, creed and color. And America has always been a country that looks forward. So, I will be voting for Barack Obama on election day this year.

The revelation of Zakaria’s personal efforts to ensure Obama’s success all started from a paragraph in a Wednesday, May 11 New York Times article praising Obama’s quest to master the Middle East:

He [President Obama] has sounded out prominent journalists like Fareed Zakaria of Time magazine and CNN and Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist at The New York Times, regarding their visits to the region. “He is searching for a way to pull back and weave a larger picture,” Mr. Zakaria said.

That went little-noticed until Spitzer brought it up on the Thursday, May 12 In the Arena:

ELIOT SPITZER: Look, I read something in the paper this week a couple of days ago that actually made me -- you know brought a smile to my face. It said the President of the United States calls you for wisdom and advice about issues around the world. So first, when he calls you, what does he say? “Hi, Barack calling for Fareed”? What does he do?

ZAKARIA: Mostly it's been face-to-face meetings.

SPITZER: Right.

ZAKARIA: You know, usually organized by Tom Donilon, the national security adviser. What I'm struck by, though, honestly, Eliot, is how much time he's spending thinking about the issues of the Arab spring particularly the issues of Egypt, how -- how to make Egypt go right, what -- you know, what is the -- what are the mechanisms that the United States has to help the moderates and liberals. It's been a very thoughtful conversation. You know we'll see where it goes.

SPITZER: I'm not going to ask you what you have said to the President but it makes my heart warm that the President is calling you for wisdom and advice.

After the inevitable notice that got, Zakaria posted this statement on Saturday afternoon:

The characterization that I have been “advising” President Obama is inaccurate. Over the last few months I've had a couple of conversations with the President, off-the-record. At no point did President Obama ask me for advice on a specific policy or speech or proposal, nor did I volunteer it. I know that he has had similar meetings with other columnists.

Then on Sunday’s Reliable Sources, Kurtz addressed the matter:

HOWARD KURTZ: When a journalist has private meetings with the president it invariably raises questions. That's what happened this week when the New York Times reported that President Obama has held such off-the- record sessions with CNN's Fareed Zakaria and Times' columnist Tom Friedman. Zakaria was asked about this on Eliot Spitzer's show.

ELIOT SPITZER, IN THE ARENA: It said the President of the United States called you for wisdom and advice about issues around the world. So, first, when he calls you, what does he say, “Hi. Barack, calling for Fareed”? What does he do?



FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: Mostly it has been face-to-face meetings. You know, it's usually organized by Tom Donilon, the national security adviser.

KURTZ: Glenn Beck took a whack at Fareed. And the Web site Mediaite called it a “stunning revelation for a working journalist to admit that he has private discussions on policy with a sitting U.S. President.”

Friedman says his policy is not to discuss private meetings. Zakaria told me yesterday that he never gave Obama advice or counsel on any aspect of administration policy, that he is a commentator and Time magazine columnist, not a reporter, that the two meetings he's had with Obama in recent months give him a sense of the president's thinking, and that he used to have the same kinds of meetings with, for example, Condi Rice.

I agree with Fareed's last point, that part of what he's getting at the White House is high-level spin. That's why I think the fact of the meetings should have been disclosed. Zakaria says that's not part of the arrangement, but it should be. Otherwise, people will inevitably have doubts when word leaks out.

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center