Fareed Zakaria and the Failure of Thought Leadership
Fareed Zakaria—host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, editor-at-large for TIME, and columnist for the Washington Post—was recently implicated in a plagiarism scandal. Conservative media watchdog Newsbusters found that portions of aTIME article he wrote on gun control were borrowed without attribution from a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore. Zakaria apologized for his error, explaining that he had confused his handwritten notes. His publishers each suspended him for a month, but TIMEand CNN rescinded their bans after only a week, once their investigations found no additional problems.
Plagiarism is a serious ethical breach. At Yale University—where Zakaria matriculated and was, until recently, a trustee—plagiarists can be expelled. Last month, Zakaria resigned from Yale’s board shortly after the scandal, saying he wanted to “focus on the core of my work.”
However, there is another issue of journalistic ethics that should concern Zakaria’s critics: “buckraking”—accepting large fees for speaking engagements from industry interests he covers. Zakaria is one of many celebrity speakers represented by the Royce Carlton broker agency. His booking fee is proprietary information that Carlton Sedgeley, the agency’s president, refused to disclose to me. However, one person who tried to book Zakaria in 2008 for a speaking engagement was quoted a price of $75,000 for a one-hour talk, according to journalist Ken Silverstein.
Such lucrative compensation has led some critics to wonder whether journalists should be permitted to accept speaking engagements from industry interests they cover. In aColumbia Journalism Review article on the subject, Paul Starobin questioned Zakaria’s coverage of financial issues while accepting speaking engagements from, among other firms, Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, Oak Investment Partners, Charles Schwab, and T. Rowe Price. Until recently, one could have seen a list on the Royce Carlton Web site of the firms that hired Zakaria and recommended him, but that list has been scrubbed and is in the process of being revised. (Compare the current list with the previous one in the documents at the end of this article.)
“People have been using it incorrectly, so we’ve taken [the recommendations] down,” said Sedgeley, who claimed there was at least one error on it. “It’s not a definitive list.” Only one recommendation—from Stanford University—is currently displayed.