NewsBusters Kept Zakaria From Joining Team Obama?

Due to vacation, I missed an article Brent Baker showed me that’s really shocking. In the August 27 Newsweek, Tunku Varadarajan – the man who replaced Fareed Zakaria in the post of editor of Newsweek International – wrote what he calls a “full-frontal polemic” defending Zakaria against what he called the “plagiarism McCarthyites” and a “lynch mob”... that begins with me.

Before commenting on this hyperbolic article, let’s isolate the most interesting line about Zakaria: “He was in favorable consideration by Team Obama for the post of national security adviser. That will not, now happen.” This would have been the second journalist to revolve from news magazine bigwig to Democrat foreign-policy bigwig: see Time’s Strobe Talbott, who became Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state.

On May 11, 2011, The New York Times reported that 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.” If Zakaria was under consideration to join Obama’s team, that might cast doubt on Zakaria’s claim that he wasn’t advising Obama, just having the kind of conversations that journalists have with sources.  How long has Zakaria been under “favorable consideration” and how might that bend the arc of his journalism?

Don’t ask Varadarajan. He seems very angry that Zakaria didn’t get a plum post from Obama (and won't blame Obama, but only Zakaria's critics). He could not seem to distinguish between the simple act of reporting plagiarism and wishing to destroy someone’s career:

In the past few days, as one observed his confreres in the American media slobber and snarl for his blood after an act of plagiarism so trivial that one had to marvel at the disproportion between the journalistic lapse and the cyclonic castigation, one was tempted to ask this question, in echo of his first resounding shot: “Why Do They Hate Fareed?” One must also ask a question of two of Zakaria’s employers, Time and CNN, both of whom suspended him with unseemly haste, as throngs with pitchforks gathered outside their gates: “Why Were You So Spineless?”

Both reinstated him within days of the suspension after internal inquiries into his work; which leads one to ask why they didn’t wait until after their inquiries before smiting him so publicly. His reputation was tarred: he was in favorable consideration by Team Obama for the post of national-security adviser. That will not, now, happen.

Anyone consulting my original article would see that I was mocking Zakaria for claiming gun-rights activists were “un-American and unintelligent,” since attempting plagiarism is not very intelligent. Perhaps NewsBusters is not included in Tunku’s tirade about “throngs with pitchforks” that slobber and snarl, but that’s being generous to the author. One might guess Tunku would compare Zakaria to Shirley Sherrod, the allegedly earnest public servant wronged by an exaggeration of their utterances. That would be a stretch.

The tirade continued:

Why do they hate Fareed? What one has seen in the past few days can only be described as a hideous manifestation of envy—Fareed Envy. Henry Kissinger’s aphorism about academia (where the “politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”) applies with delicious tartness to journalism, where media reporters of the kind who hounded Zakaria occupy the lowest rung and exult at the prospect of pulling people down. Zakaria, by contrast, is insanely successful by the standards of his profession: he has a TV show to which few people of any prominence would refuse an invitation, plus columns at Time, CNN.com, and The Washington Post. He also writes academic-lite books that presidents clutch as they clamber aboard planes, and gives speeches at—it is said—$75,000 a pop. He is as much a brand as he is a journalist: he has “inc.” in his veins.

Once again, it’s possible Tunku is not including NewsBusters among the vicious media reporters who “exult at the prospect of bringing people down.” I made no attempt to suggest Zakaria should be disciplined or suspended in any way. I thought his plagiarism was an embarrassment, but not a firing offense. One does not have to "hate" Zakaria to expose what he did. Still, it’s quite possible Tunku painted with a very broad brush in this paragraph as well.

Tunku really lets his feverish adoration of (or personal friendship with?) Zakaria go to his head with the hype about him being “insanely successful” with a highly enviable Sunday program on CNN.  Having a show with 150,000 viewers is impressive, but not when compared to top-rated cable hosts like Bill O’Reilly who can draw 3 million. One could certainly be envious of getting $75,000 per speech – especially if it’s possible that the paying customer is getting lazily borrowed words and ideas. Tunku’s tirade still isn’t complete:

It’s lonely at the top. As the traditional news media shrivel and other platforms proliferate, celebrity public intellectuals like Zakaria (think, also, of Tom Friedman and David Brooks) become the only bankable resource left. Recognizable across all the mediums, the branded few become mini-industries unto themselves. Simultaneously, a huge cloud of excluded people, regular civilians and workaday journalists alike, can now respond on the Internet, many of them resentful that their voices go unheard while the Zakarias loom ever larger. So they pick over every word. For celebrity journalists, equally, a potent pressure has grown: the pressure to stay aloft at 40,000 feet, to stay prolific, and flawless. Zakaria must project omniscience to survive: so he writes short and long, on everything from al Qaeda to American gun control, the topic on which he was tripped up by the plagiarism McCarthyites. So he cribbed a little: he read a lot; took notes; things got jumbled. Is that worth a man’s career? I think not, and to his credit he thought not too. One admires him for fighting back, especially as those who called for his head were so pious, and yet so inhumane.

There is no way to conclude NewsBusters is not included among the “plagiarism McCarthyites” and the “huge cloud of excluded people” who are allegedly riddled with envy, and among those who are "so pious, and yet so inhumane." We can't plead guilty to poring over Zakaria's every word, and we search for blatant bias and partisanship, not so much plagiarism. We credited Cam Edwards at NRANews.com for identifying the offending passages.

“McCarthyism” is a word that’s supposed to mean guilt by association – but Zakaria was guilty of plagiarism, not guilty by association with a plagiarist, even if the loosely copied New Yorker article was copied by an intern. A journalist should take responsibility for anything with his byline on it – as Zakaria did.

Newsweek’s description of a “lynch mob” also suggests Zakaria was completely innocent of the offense of plagiarism. Zakaria's critics have not demanded "omniscience" and should not be considered responsible for Zakaria being "forced" to be prolific and wander into topics like guns where he displayed he had no expertise.

Perhaps Tunku is right that there was "Schadenfareed," that many in the media mob enjoyed Zakaria being exposed. (I received some of that in my e-mail.) But that might underline that Zakaria might be responsible not only for his plagiarism, but for arrogance, or as they're presently putting it in the political press, a "likability gap."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis