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Fareed Zakaria, Not a Muckraking Journalist -- More Like a 'Buckraking' Shill

Zakaria has a shocking track record of accepting large fees for speaking engagements from industry interests he covers.

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A former senator and governor of the Sooner state, Boren is president of the University of Oklahoma. In  April 2009 and November 2010, Zakaria visited Norman to speak at dinners for  OU President’s Associates, a club of donors to Boren’s major initiatives. The two men are  mutual admirers and have known each other ever since Zakaria, a 19-year-old undergrad at Yale, brought a delegation of fellow students to visit Boren, an alumnus, in Congress. For doing the two events Zakaria was paid an undisclosed amount from private funds, said Catherine Bishop, Vice President for Public Affairs. On August 15, I made a request at the university’s open records office to release more information, but the request has not been fulfilled.

Boren has a significant interest in the future of shale gas. As  reported in The New York Times, Boren is a board member of Continental Resources, an Oklahoma-based oil and gas company with large investments in shale projects. He received $350,000 in total compensation from Continental last year, and has  sold more than $600,000 of his stock in the past two years. He has also been on the  boards of shale-gas players ConocoPhillips,  Hiland Partners GP LLC, and Hiland Partners LP. Two of his largest, multi-million-dollar university donors are  Harold Hamm, head of Continental Resources and chairman of Hiland Partners, and  Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy.

What should we make of these speaking engagements? Do they generate a conflict of interest for his endorsement of shale gas on CNN and in the Washington Post?

My repeated attempts to put that question to Zakaria himself went unanswered. However, CNN issued the following response to my queries:

We have full confidence in Fareed Zakaria and do not think his outside speaking appearances interfere with his CNN responsibilities on his weekly show or his commentary on CNN. For two decades now he has a well-deserved reputation for reaching his conclusions in an independent and fair-minded manner. We are aware of and review all of his speaking engagements.

Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post’s editoral page editor, said this in response:

The Post does have a policy on outside speaking that applies to staff writers. For non-staff contributors, our expectation is that they will exercise sound judgment and inform readers of anything that a reasonable person might consider a relevant conflict. In Fareed’s case, I know that CNN, his primary employer, vets his speaking engagements. I have confidence in his judgment. And I find your examples not to fall into a category that I would expect to be disclosed to readers. The idea that Fareed, in accepting an offer to speak at a non-profit institution such as the University of Oklahoma, should be expected to inquire into the private holdings of the university’s president strikes me as far-fetched and unpersuasive.

Here we must be careful. Hiatt is certainly right that the examples don’t offer standard fare for conflict-of-interest charges. They aren’t shale-gas companies but nonprofit organizations that are led by or have connections to people with shale-gas interests. Thus the standard rules for such issues—such as public disclosure—may not apply. But that does not mean these examples aren’t problematic.

To be clear, the allegation is not that there is a quid pro quo between Zakaria and those who invite him to speak. Nor is it the claim that if he accepts speaking fees from shale-gas interests, his support of shale gas is due to the fees. Nor is it even the claim of a straightforward conflict of interest, since we do not know for certain whether Zakaria knew the financial interests of the people who invited and paid him to speak at these nonprofit institutions.

 
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