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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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It is useful to compare the alleged corruption of Congress by moneyed interests. According to legal scholar Lawrence Lessig’s analysis in  Republic Lost (2011), the problem with the massive amount of fundraising and lobbying directed at our representatives isn’t one of quid-pro-quo corruption, though such cases do arise on occasion. Nor is it simply a matter of Congressman John Doe accepting money from the financial industry in January, having lunch with financial lobbyists in February, and voting against a financial-reform act in March. Rather, it concerns the massive economy of influence among campaign funders, lobbyists, and legislators. The cash, access, and sway of moneyed interests corrupt Congress as an institution, in the sense that the public’s trust in Congress as responsive to the American people becomes weakened. The influence may not be sufficient to determine legislative outcomes but it damages our faith in the integrity of those outcomes.

Zakaria’s speaking fees raise similar issues for his trustworthiness as a journalist and for journalism’s trustworthiness as an institution. If Zakaria collected salaries from CNN and TIME alone, he would be answerable only to those media institutions and their audiences. However, since he also collects hundreds of thousands of dollars from speaking engagements, we have to wonder if he is also being influenced in ways that make him responsive to those who pay his speaking fees.

Here the concern isn’t merely about a specific special interest influencing Zakaria to take positions in favor of that interest, though this is especially worrisome. There is also the worry that those who have the money to pay his speaking fees are typically of an elite, moneyed class and tend to share a similar outlook on everything from labor unions and education reform to financial regulations and the importance of domestic natural-gas production. Thus even the most highly esteemed figures, such as Harvard’s Michael Sandel or Elaine Pagels—who are both represented by Royce Carlton—must be wary of raking large speaking fees, lest they be subtly influenced into taking positions more favorable to their funders than they otherwise would.

The problem, moreover, goes beyond the payment of large sums from interests Zakaria writes about. After all, speaking engagements are never just about speeches. When you pay someone to give a keynote address, you’re paying for more than the lecture. There’s also the cocktails, the dinner, the informal meet-and-greets, the many opportunities to chat and schmooze. In other words, you’re also paying for  the chance to lobby.

The influence generated by such engagements can, like campaign fundraising, work on different levels. Just as members of Congress may be influenced into taking positions that will further, or at least not hinder, their future campaign fund-raising, journalists who accept large speaking fees may be influenced into taking public positions that will further, or at least not hinder, their lucrative engagements and travel opportunities.

In addition there is the important, but mostly ignored, fact that because members of Congress have to spend so much time and energy fundraising for themselves and their parties, they don’t have time to reflect, listen, debate, craft, and negotiate what they believe is the best legislation for their constituents. If a lawmaker doesn’t have time to reason by himself and with others—the very basis of good republican government—and is forced nevertheless to make decisions, what influences would we expect to come to the forefront of his deliberation? The people and public good he is supposed to serve but has not had time to consider? Or the people he has been in regular, intimate contact with, at one-on-one meetings, at roundtables, and over cocktails, who are funding his very ability to serve in the first place?

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