Journalists in Washington don’t want just to write. They want the top government officials to take their advice, to use their wisdom to govern. Here’s what happens next: a dance between journalist and government official to build a mutually beneficial relationship. The official provides access, makes the journalist feel important and consulted, and then the journalist announces that the official is wise and is making all the right moves.
This is exactly what CNN host and Time columnist Fareed Zakaria has been doing with President Obama. He’s advising Obama (informally, of course) and then going on CNN and declaring the president’s speeches are quite good. In an interview with Keach Hagey of Politico, Zakaria tried to deflect critics:
Zakaria defended himself, saying he’d had off-the-record conversations with the president over the past few months but was never asked about a specific policy or speech. “The characterization that I have been ‘advising’ President Obama is inaccurate,” he said.
“Occasionally, I have had the honor to talk to the president,” Zakaria said. “My gut is that those conversations should be private, and they should be off the record, you know, because it helps me enormously with my work. … It’s mostly the policymaker trying to tell me how they are thinking about the world and giving me an insight into how they think.”
I love that snippet, “those conversations should be off the record because it helps me enormously with my work.” Information about my conversations with Obama shouldn’t be publicized because they’re so beneficial to me and my career. I get to run around town proclaiming how influential I am, and if the people in Omaha or Boise don’t know all the secret reasons why I tell them Obama’s speeches are great, well, no one is harmed.
Don’t buy the “I need access to get insights on how they think.” Every meeting with a know-it-all like Zakaria or Thomas Friedman is loaded with “I need access so they can get MY insights, and follow MY wisdom.” Friedman would like to be “dictator for a day,” but has to settle for playing Secretary of State for an hour.
Zakaria says it’s wrong to expect him to behave like some kind of plebeian beat reporter, with the expectation he’ll just be an objective stenographer. He is a foreign-policy pundit, and apparently, even in the role of CNN public-affairs host, it is unfair and wrong to expect he’ll live by CNN’s public image to advertisers as objective:
Zakaria said the controversy stems from a misunderstanding about his role in the journalism landscape. Although he has had a long career in publishing — first as managing editor of Foreign Affairs right out of Harvard’s political science doctoral program, then as editor of Newsweek International for a decade and most recently as editor-at-large for Time magazine — he sees himself as still, fundamentally, an analyst. He finds it strange that people would be critical of him dispensing advice to policymakers, since he does that on a daily basis through his columns, articles, books and CNN show, “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”
“I am not a reporter,” he said. “I have never been a reporter. I have no background as a reporter. I have never pretended to be a reporter. I came into this business as a columnist, as a commentator. I have never pretended that I’m neutral in any way or am reporting on what somebody says. I have my analysis. I try to be fair, which is very different from being neutral.”
But George Will was a long-time columnist when he coached Reagan on debates, and then went on ABC and announced Reagan had performed admirably. That was a scandal among liberals when that story broke in the 1980s, but this is roughly what Zakaria is doing now. If he’s not advising Obama directly on speeches, surely he feels the need to praise the president on CNN to preserve his adviser relationship.
Politico explained how Obama’s seduction of Zakaria began, how Obama felt he needed to win liberal pundits before Hillary did:
It was at a book party for his second tome, "The Audacity of Hope," hosted in October 2006 by the George W. Bush backers-turned-Obama bundlers Tom and Andi Bernstein — whom Zakaria describes as "mutual friends."
"We immediately got into a very engaged conversation about the nature of democracy, about the historical origins of democracy," Zakaria said. "He had read my book, ‘The Future of Freedom,' and he wanted to talk about it. And I was frankly quite startled to find a politician who would do that." Most politicians say they've read your book when they've flipped through it or perhaps scanned a review in the weekend paper, Zakaria said, "but with Obama, you get the sense that he's a reader."
This is Sucking Up to Journalists 101, telling a journalist you read his book, and the author is so thrilled to tell all his friends that the next president read his book that he’ll generously think “you get the sense” that he read it, and that “he’s a reader.” (As opposed to, one can guess, cowboy Republican presidents.)
Zakaria claimed to Hagey that he used to be a “Reaganite,” but then shifted when there was a “rightward shift of both parties” that “forced” him to become more Democrat-friendly. But Reagan was the sign of a rightward shift in the GOP, so Zakaria’s really trying to explain how he labored to become part of the liberal media elite:
His sense of his own political identity began to shift during the Clinton years, though he argues that a rightward shift of both the Democratic and Republican parties forced the change.
Today, he describes himself as “politically heterodox.”
“I’m a very strong free-market guy, a strong free-trade guy, but I’m also sensible,” he said.
"Strong free-market guy, but sensible" is apparently code for "a liberal who favors tax increases." It continued:
On social issues, he’s “always been very liberal.” Best known for analyzing international relations, Zakaria supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, initially, arguing that any “stirring of the pot” in the region could only help. But he soon changed his tune and criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the war.
Zakaria largely approves of Obama’s foreign policy, thus far. “I see him trying to rebalance U.S. foreign policy, trying to move us away from an exaggerated focus on a few crisis spots in the world — Afghanistan, Iraq and others — and to shift some of our attention and our energy and our resources toward the real challenges that we face in the 21st century, which are in Asia,” he said.
Here again, the reader should sense that Obama is "rebalancing" foreign policy -- with the intellectual assistance of Fareed Zakaria, Geopolitical Genius.